Not only did Brinker understand the importance of providing food to those in need, she also understood that the human touch was essential too. She encouraged volunteers to spend time with the people they were delivering food to.
The impact of the organization was swift and deeply felt. In 1989, POH expanded to also serve Alameda County. That same year, after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the project provided food to residents whose houses had been destroyed. The following year, it joined forces with the seven-year-old Food Bank at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which, at that time, was already distributing bags of groceries to 600 people every week. By 2000, Project Open Hand was also serving seniors in over 20 San Francisco locations, and people with all manner of debilitating diseases (cancer and heart disease included).
Today, Project Open Hand is still thriving, providing an astonishing 2,600 meals and 200 bags of groceries per day, seven days a week, thanks to the tireless efforts of 110 staff members, and the 125 dedicated volunteers that show up daily. But it's also reliant on the kindness of the community; two thirds of its funding comes from public donations. Its success has inspired the founding of "dozens" of similar organizations across the country, as well as in places as far flung as the UK and South Africa.
For a period in the '90s, Brinker also set up and ran Fresh Start Farms, a 1/4-acre plot on the corner of Ellis and Divisadero that grew designer greens (including nasturtium, mustard, rosemary, borage, and calendula) to sell to high-end restaurants. The farm exclusively employed refugees and people recovering from periods of homelessness. But it is Project Open Hand that Brinker will always be best remembered for.
Ruth Marie Brinker died on August 13, 2011 at the age of 89. The outpouring after her death was enormous.
“I have walked in the Pride Parade with many, many contingents," attorney Bill Ambrunn said, "including with popular elected officials and celebrities. But it was never like the experience walking with Ruth as part of the POH contingent. All along the parade route, you could hear people crying out, 'We love you Ruth. Thank you Ruth.' People clapped and cheered enthusiastically for the tiny little lady waving from the car. They knew her and knew her story and loved her. Even if they didn't actually know her, many of them knew people she helped care for."
Brinker remained modest throughout her life, regardless of the appreciation she received from others. "I always try to do things that need to be done," she told The Noe Valley Voice in 2006. "It seemed to me that this needed to be done, and I did it."
For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here.