Sunday, September 28, 2008

Breaking Ground

Saturday, September 27 was a wonderful and important day for Open Arms. In a joyful and emotional ceremony, we broke ground on our new building in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.

The day started early for the staff of Open Arms. Taya, our food services director, was in the kitchen at 4:00 in the morning preparing breakfast for our special guests. Over the course of the next few hours every staff member at Open Arms joined in the effort to cook breakfast and prepare the site at 25th Street and Bloomington Avenue in Minneapolis. It wasn’t long before the staff was joined by every board member of Open Arms who greeted our guests and thanked our volunteers and supporters for all they do for us every day. We were very grateful to also have the help of riders and crew members from the Breast Cancer Bike Ride.

The morning was cool and the skies gray. Although the weather report did not predict rain, we weren’t so sure. Just in case our breakfast and groundbreaking ceremony got rained on, we had prepared small cards to hand our guests with an African blessing that explained that when it rains on guests, it’s actually a sign of good luck. The rain held off and the entire morning was filled with blessings and good fortune.

The footprint for the first floor of our new building was staked out in the property to give guests a visual impression of what the building will look like. Many volunteers were overheard – standing on the grass – trying to find the area in the kitchen where they will be chopping vegetables or packaging meals in a little more than a year when our building is actually finished.

Under a tent, our guests enjoyed a delicious (and of course nutritious) breakfast of buffalo bison, organic eggs, potatoes, fresh fruit and breads. Our good friends at Sisters Sludge (a coffee shop just down Bloomington Avenue) provided the coffee.

Throughout the morning, more and more friends arrived and by 11:00, when we began the morning’s ceremony, nearly 400 people had joined us.

Barbara Hoese, president of Open Arms’ board of directors, welcomed guests and reminded all in attendance how Open Arms began as a response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Twin Cities. She thanked John Frey and Jane Letourneau, who joined Barb on stage, for being co-chairs of our capital campaign and for purchasing and donating the property on which our new building will be constructed.

Executive director, Kevin Winge, told the assembled crowd that although the building was only staked out on the ground, that he could actually see what Open Arms’ new home will look like. He described to the guests what the basement, kitchen, and second floor would look like. He announced that Open Arms has secured $5.6 million towards its $8.1 million goal, and although Open Arms isn’t entirely sure where the final $2.5 million will come from, he assured the gathering that the community will continue to support this vital service.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a longtime friend and supporter of Open Arms, spoke eloquently about growing up very near Open Arms’ new home. He echoed the thought that Open Arms belongs to the community and that the decision to construct our new building in the Phillips neighborhood will strengthen communities in the Twin Cities.

Gary Schiff, Minneapolis City Council Member, HIV/AIDS activist and advocate for the Phillips neighborhood, joined in the celebration. He spoke of how Open Arms opened its arms to serve even more people living with other diseases and how the entire community can depend on Open Arms to be there for them in the future.

Open Arms’ final speaker, Bill Kimker, had many in attendance in tears. Bill, who has lived with HIV/AIDS for decades, spoke about being the first person to ever leave Hope House, an AIDS hospice in Stillwater, alive. Fighting back tears himself, Bill said that Open Arms “Gave me friendship, support and took good care of me, provided me food and I gained weight. They welcomed me with open arms.” And he credited the chocolate desserts that Open Arms bakes for much of his good health! Although mobility continues to be an issue for Bill, following his comments, Bill rose from his wheelchair, firmly grabbed a shovel, and turned the very first shovel of dirt to break ground on Open Arms’ new home.

It was a beautiful day that honored Open Arms’ past and took a major step into our future.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Open Arms Groundbreaking

As we prepare to break ground on Open Arms’ new building on Saturday, September 27, I find myself reflecting on all of the events of the past 22 years that have brought us to this point.

It was our founder, Bill Rowe, who saw that people with HIV/AIDS needed nutritious meals to feed their body, and the visit from a compassionate volunteer to feed their soul. He never imagined, when he prepared that first dinner for five men with AIDS from the kitchen of his apartment, that Open Arms would still be addressing a critical need in this community over two decades later.

It was Open Arms’ phenomenal growth in the past four years that triggered our capital campaign – The Kitchen Campaign: Building the Future of Open Arms – an $8.1 million endeavor that will allow us to construct a new building and expand our programming to serve even more people in the Twin Cities living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic and progressive diseases.

In the summer of 2004 Open Arms was serving 200 people with HIV/AIDS, and our resources were stretched. We were running out of cooler and freezer space to store food and prepared meals. We lacked the volunteers needed to cook and deliver meals. Our small, dedicated staff was working beyond their limits. And we were facing the possibility of the first deficit in our history. It was a time when Open Arms could have easily decided to do less, but we knew that the need in the community was much greater than the 200 clients we were serving. So, we decided to do more.

We installed additional coolers and freezers. We added Saturday and evening volunteer shifts in the kitchen to increase meal production. We surveyed our clients and discovered that 75% of them preferred a weekly delivery of all their meals rather than the daily delivery they had been receiving for the first two decades of our service. We created new menus to better meet the nutrition requirements of people living with disease and to offer our clients more choice in their meal selection. We developed Nausea Care Packs filled with items like ginger ale and saltine crackers – food our clients told us they could almost always tolerate, even if nausea prevented them from eating meals. And we made a critical decision to enhance our service to people living with HIV/AIDS while also expanding our program to serve people affected by other chronic and progressive diseases such as breast cancer, MS and ALS.

I believe that when you do the right thing, good things happen. And good things happened at Open Arms. By helping more people, more people helped us. More volunteers filled our kitchen and delivery shifts. More community members donated money to allow us to fund our expansion. The shift from daily deliveries to a weekly delivery conserved fuel and avoided a potential crisis for delivery when gasoline prices soared to record levels. And not only did we begin serving meals to people living with diseases like cancer, we actually saw a dramatic increase in the request for service from people living with HIV/AIDS.

Four years ago, Open Arms served 89,136 meals to people living with HIV/AIDS. This year, we will serve 250,000 meals to people living with HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, MS, ALS, as well as our clients’ affected caregivers and dependent children. We are committed to serving as many meals to as many people as we possibly can from our current facility, but we know that sometime in the next 12 months we will reach capacity in our existing building. There simply will be no more space to cook the meals and inadequate space to cool and freeze them. That is why Saturday, September 27 is such an important day in Open Arms’ history.

Breaking ground on our new building at 25th & Bloomington in Minneapolis will be the next step in Open Arms’ decades-long commitment to ensure that no one who is ill in this community will also have to go hungry.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Comments from Peace Island Conference

On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control reported on a new disease that was afflicting five gay men. We didn’t know at the time, but that day would mark the start of what today is known as the AIDS pandemic. Twenty-seven years ago, Ronald Reagan was president and in 1981, President Reagan would be silent about this new disease. And in 1982, as more and more gay men, IV drug users, and Haitian immigrants began getting sick, Reagan remained silent. And he was silent in 1983, and in 1984, and in 1985, and in 1986. It would be 1987, one year before Reagan left office, before he would address the issue of AIDS – what today we know as the greatest public health crisis the world has ever seen. By that time, the genie was out of the bottle and HIV/AIDS was on the rise in this country and getting a foothold in places like sub-Saharan Africa.

I’m critical of the lack of political leadership on what has become one of the greatest issues of our time, but there is plenty of blame to go around. At the start of the AIDS crisis in this country some corporations discriminated against people with HIV/AIDS. Too many faith communities were silent on the subject, while others were actually condemning. And sadly, many families disowned their children – oftentimes because they could not accept their son’s homosexuality and HIV status.

I know a bit about those early years of the AIDS epidemic because I lived in New York City in the 1980s. When a test for HIV became available, some of my closest friends tested positive and I saw what happened to them when they lost their jobs, their homes, and their faith, before ultimately losing their lives. And then in 2000, I began going to South Africa to a township where one in five of all adults is believed to be HIV-positive, and I met more people affected by the same disease but people who had no access to life-saving medications, people with no homes, no food, and sometimes with no hope.

Through my work at Open Arms of Minnesota to provide food and nutrition to people living with HIV/AIDS, and through my travels and work in the townships of South Africa, I began to see that HIV/AIDS was much more than just a public health crisis. Indeed, AIDS has been allowed to spread from those first few individuals infected with the disease decades ago to tens of millions of people around the world today because of systems of injustice.

HIV/AIDS has as much to do with homophobia, racism, gender inequality, and economic inequality as it does a public health issue. Compare this country’s silence on HIV/AIDS in the 1980s when it was primarily gay men being infected, to this country’s immediate and widespread response to Legionnaire’s Disease which affected a couple of hundred American Legion delegates – most believed to be heterosexual –  in 1976 in Philadelphia. And, if you don’t think racism plays a role in HIV/AIDS, do you really believe that our lack of response to AIDS in places like sub-Saharan Africa would have been the same had AIDS impacted white Europeans at the same rate? Do you think it’s mere coincidence that now that the majority of people with HIV/AIDS in the world are women and overwhelmingly they are living in poverty, that we simply throw our arms up in the air and say there is nothing we can do?

Just as homophobia, racism, gender and economic inequalities are interconnected with HIV/AIDS, so too must the solutions be more than prevention and care and treatment. We need a comprehensive approach to HIV/AIDS that also addresses: educational opportunities for all, economic independence, access to decent health care, inheritance rights for women, land use, food security, AIDS-sensitive agriculture, the reduction of sexual violence, and same sex marriage.

If you care about any of these issues, you must care about HIV/AIDS because at this point in our history, all of these issues are interconnected – but the solutions don’t necessarily need to be.

I used to say that HIV/AIDS affects people without a voice, but I learned long ago that this isn’t true. It’s not that gay people, people of color, women, and poor people don’t have a voice – it’s just that people with power and privilege choose not to hear those voices. It’s past time that these voices be listened to.