The door to the tiny one room apartment was propped open. Boxes piled neatly on top of boxes, almost to the ceiling, made the skimpy SRO living quarters look even tighter. The notation on the delivery sheet next to the resident’s name said: “Client hard of hearing; speak very loud.”
Phillip Petrasanta, a long-time volunteer for San Francisco’s Project Open Hand, shouted the client’s name past the open door. A tall, frail looking man, greeted us, smiling, and accepted the hot dinner.
“Thank you both for volunteering, “ he said .
“It’s our pleasure, “we said, almost at the same time.
“Have a nice evening,” Phillip added.
We headed back down the stairs in the dilapidated, small old Tenderloin hotel with the balky elevator, which, as one dignified, well-spoken resident told us, “only listens to the last button pushed.”
These were the folks most San Franciscans forgot: the frail, the elderly, the home-bound, those battling cancer, or substance abuse, or living with HIV/AIDS, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, the recently homeless, or those just down on their luck. Tucked away in tumble-down tenements on Turk Street, and Golden Gate, Taylor & Jones, behind iron bars and attendants shielded by bullet-proof glass, where photo IDs were required of all who entered or left the building, these tenants of the Golden City on the Hill were invisible to most, except the humane beings at Project Open Hand.
The non-profit life-line serves 2500 meals per day in San Francisco and Alameda Counties, relying heavily on volunteers to hand-deliver food, along with a dollop of love and concern each day. For some shut-ins, it’s the only human contact they have all day long. Supported largely by individual donors, Project Open Hand (POH) also operates a “grocery store” at 730 Polk Street, in the heart of the Tenderloin, where ambulatory clients can pick up fresh produce and grains for their carefully supervised, nutritious diets.
Project Open Hand was born 30 years ago out of the heart and hearth of Ruth Brinker, a special individual who began by cooking meals in her own kitchen for seven friends with HIV/AIDS related illnesses. Today, POH provides some 900,000 meals and 730,000 bags of groceries per year to its clients, who are battling many diseases and disabilities, including poverty, in uber-wealthy SF where micro-apartments command macro-rents. In too many cases, the food provided by 125 volunteers per day–and supervised by a registered dietitian–is the only nutritious food the human beings helped by Project Open Hand receive. Astounding to acknowledge in a progressive urban mecca that runs on the “Open Table” App, and brags about brunch dates and Bellinis.
For over four-decades I’ve worked with dozens of non-profits across the country, serving on Boards of Directors, as a volunteer, and as a CEO. Very few are as immediately life-saving, and essential to the human spirit as Project Open Hand, where the impact of your dollar, or devotion, is received the moment the person behind the peephole sees a friendly face, props open the apartment door and pays you back with a shy smile or grateful eyes.
This weekend, as you are about to access the Open Table App, opt for Project Open Hand instead. (www.openhand.org). Donate the cost of your brunch, a shot of bourbon or a Bloody Mary to nurture your spirit, your soul and your neighbors whose existence depends upon you opening your heart, the way the team at Salesforce has in the attached YouTube video. Food is indeed love, and in more and more lives in our communities, it has become an essential medicine for survival.