Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Gift from A Client

Christmas Eve is always a hectic day at Open Arms with everyone working hard to package and deliver meals as early as possible so that our clients, as well as our volunteers and staff, can enjoy the holiday. By noon, all of the meals are en route to being delivered and we are waiting for drivers to return their delivery bags.


By 1:00 in the afternoon I usually tell the Open Arms staff to leave so they can have more time with their families. I stay a bit longer to greet the last of the drivers who are returning their bags and to answer the phone should any clients call with questions.


This Christmas Eve, just as I was about to turn out the lights, a client called inquiring about meals that he was anticipating, but that hadn’t arrived. When I explained to him that he wasn’t on the list for a delivery, he was very understanding and wished me a happy holiday.


Before hanging up, I asked the client if he had any food to eat. He said he didn’t, but that could buy a few things at neighborhood market to hold him over until we resumed normal deliveries the following week. Since he would be alone for the holiday, he didn’t need too much food anyway.


I asked the client to hold as I looked in our coolers to see if there were meals I could deliver to him. We did have extra meals, but I was on a tight schedule. A bakery across town was willing to donate bread to Open Arms if I could get there before they closed in an hour. I thought I could do both – deliver meals to our client and make it to the bakery before it closed – but only if the client could meet me on the street in front of his apartment building so I could double park and hand off the meals to him.


Our client was very grateful, telling me that he would be waiting for me in the lobby and that he would run out to my car to get his meals. Ten minutes later, I was on the street in front of our client’s building and before I could pull the meals from the insulated delivery bag, the client was standing next to me. As I handed our client his meals, he handed me a gift – an amber votive candle holder with an electronic candle that flashes a yellow flame.


This gift, this unexpected gesture, completely altered my day. Instead of Christmas Eve being a laundry list of activities to be checked off before enjoying the holiday, those activities themselves – from going to the bakery to a last minute stop at the post office – became part of the enjoyment of the day.


I came to work at Open Arms in 1997 to help improve the quality of the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS. What I found, however, is that most of my time as executive director is taken up with administrative tasks, strategic planning, budgeting, and fundraising. At this point, I have little interaction with the clients we serve. This brief Christmas Eve encounter with one of our clients reminded me of why I got into this work in the first place. It also showed me, yet again, that I receive much more from my work than I give.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Christmas Carol

Being of Scandinavian descent, my family immigrated to this country from Norway shortly after the Civil War, I sometimes think I’m genetically predisposed to exhibiting bah humbug-like behavior this time of year. Maybe all of those endless winters my ancestors spent on farms near Norwegian towns like Trondheim and Jevnaker actually froze something in my family’s DNA. Or maybe it was seeing too many productions of Henrik Ibsen’s dark plays, or the screaming paintings by Edvard Munch, that left me thinking that Ebenezer Scrooge probably wasn’t such a bad guy after all – maybe just a little misunderstood. I mean, aren’t we all be visited by ghosts in our memories?


The Ghost of Christmas Past who visits me is a sentimental ghost who recalls little brown paper sacks filled with hard candy and peanuts handed out to all the children after the annual Lutheran church Christmas pageant. It’s a ghost who brings back memories of stockings hung from living room curtains (ours was a house without a fireplace), and the exact number of gifts for every child – one of which was always a package of underwear. We all opened that one first – an expected appetizer of a present on our way to the main course of games and toys, wrapped in paper that had been carefully folded and saved from Christmases past.


Even those years when money was tight – and that was most years it seemed – there always was an abundance of food. There was Swedish meatballs, turkey and lutefisk. The lefsa my mother had been making for weeks would be gone by the end of Christmas Eve – as would the pumpkin pie; though a few pieces of apple pie would survive the evening meal. Christmas morning would find my dad in the kitchen frying blood sausage that we would smother with butter and dark Karo syrup – never really comprehending what we were eating.


By the 1990s, my Ghost of Christmas Future was looking far less sentimental and much more cynical. Being one of the youngest children of several generations of my family, each Christmas was now being recognized as the “first Christmas without (fill in the blank with whoever died the previous year)”. The large family gathering with guests sleeping on sofas and children stretched out on the floor got smaller and smaller each season. By then, we were far enough into the AIDS epidemic that Christmas became a time of wondering if this would be the last Christmas for friends who seemed too ill to survive another year. Christmas was becoming a season of diminishment, and the future seemed as dark as the winter’s solstice. So I did what any Scrooge would do, I threw myself into my work.


And my work, as it turned out, brought me my Spirit of Christmas Present.


There is no place I would rather be for the holidays – not a favorite Christmas from my childhood, or some future Christmas in a warm and sunny location – than Open Arms. Open Arms captures the sense of abundance and awe that I remember from my childhood and reclaims the hopefulness and activism that was once missing from my future.


I love the blast of cold air that comes in the building as volunteers walk through our doors. I love the sound of them stomping the snow from their boots before walking into the kitchen to start cooking or collecting their meal delivery bags. Although our volunteers don’t come bearing wrapped presents to put beneath a tree, they bring something I value much more at this point in my life. They bring a generous spirit and a gift of time.


I love the rich smells of hearty soups simmering on our stoves, of free-range turkeys baking in the ovens, and gingerbread cookies spread out on trays just waiting for the colorful frosting that will transform them into gingerbread men and women. I love watching children, and adults, bite the heads off first, before washing the cookie down with a cup of steaming hot chocolate or apple cider.


More than anything, I love knowing that hundreds of people who are confronting serious health issues will have nutritious meals to eat – every day of the year – because of the efforts of thousands of caring people in this community. And that is the gift that Open Arms has given me. You have given me the spirit of Christmas that I came very close to losing.


However you celebrate the season, I wish you much joy and good health.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Holiday Message

I’m optimistic about the future.


People sometimes say I’m naive or a Pollyanna, but it’s not that at all. My optimism is firmly rooted in my life experiences and is largely shaped by the AIDS crisis in this country and abroad.


I remember the fear and anxiety that gripped this nation in the 1980s when a mysterious new disease began making headlines. It was a time of uncertainty and helplessness. There was hand-wringing and soul searching. The future seemed very bleak.


Friends confided their positive HIV status to me and then implored me not to tell anyone for the legitimate fear of the isolation and discrimination they might experience. Some lost their jobs, their health insurance, and their homes. I sat by friends in hospitals in New York as they lay dying. I attended memorial services for others in the Twin Cities. I swatted flies from the faces of comatose children in Africa who would be dead just hours after my visit.


No, my optimism does not stem from a naive view of the world. Rather, it’s grounded in the countless acts of kindness, generosity, and love that are shown in times of crisis. Time and again I’ve seen compassion triumph over bigotry, action triumph over helplessness, and hope triumph over fear. And I’ve seen those countless acts and triumphs at Open Arms.


When our founder, Bill Rowe, prepared and delivered dinner to five men with AIDS in 1986, he had no intention of creating a non-profit organization. It was to be a single act of kindness – one person taking action on an issue that was paralyzing so many others. More than two decades later, that single act of kindness has resulted in a million and a half meals coming from our kitchen. That’s a million and a half more acts of kindness in this community.


When we began to learn about the escalating rates of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, the majority thinking was that there was nothing that could be done. To some, it seemed that the statistics were just too overwhelming for a small non-profit agency in Minnesota to make a difference. We didn’t accept that. We knew we couldn’t solve the global AIDS pandemic, but we also knew that we could not stand by and do nothing. Eight years later, Open Arms continues to sponsor nutrition programs, emergency food relief, and income-generating projects for thousands of people with HIV/AIDS in the townships outside of Cape Town, South Africa.


When women, newly diagnosed with breast cancer, called and asked for our help, there were those who said that Open Arms simply could not do any more. If we assisted women with breast cancer, then what about those with multiple sclerosis, or ALS, or other chronic and progressive diseases? And to those people who questioned a broadening of our mission we said, “You’re right. What about all of those people? Who will help them if we don’t?” With limited resources, but an abundance of clarity and conviction, Open Arms grew into our name and began serving nutritious meals to even more people in the Twin Cities who are sick and need our support.


When it became obvious that Open Arms would be preparing and delivering over 250,000 meals by 2008 – a 126 percent increase in service in four years – we knew our current building could no longer sustain us. We also knew that if we moved forward with an $8 million capital campaign to construct a new facility and expand programming, we would be undertaking our greatest project ever. But move forward we did. At the end of September, in the midst of dramatic turmoil in this country and around the world, we held a ceremonial groundbreaking for Open Arms’ new building in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. With the continuing support of this community, we intend to be operating from our new home by the end of next year.


All of us at Open Arms – our volunteers, donors, board, staff, and certainly our clients – know uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. We also know kindness, generosity, and love. We know the positive outcomes that can come from a community uniting to tackle great issues and challenges together. We know it because we witness it every day at Open Arms.


Thank you, for all you do for Open Arms, day after day, year after year, to provide nutritious meals to people who are ill. With your dedicated service, compassion will continue to triumph over bigotry. With your volunteerism, action will continue to triumph over helplessness. And, with your optimism, hope will continue to triumph over fear.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

World AIDS Day 2008

Another World AIDS Day, December 1, has come and gone. Usually my disappointment about World AIDS Day centers on the lack of media attention the day receives in this country. This year, my disappointment stems from something I actually read in the press.


A few scientists and academicians are saying that the time has come to shift financial resources away from HIV/AIDS to concentrate on other global health issues such as malaria and pneumonia. Some have even suggested that it is time to disband UNAIDS, the United Nations agency charged with addressing the global pandemic. They argue that for many people who have access to lifesaving anti-retroviral (ARV) medications, HIV/AIDS has become a manageable disease. They also suggest that aside from the African continent, HIV/AIDS has probably seen its peak worldwide.


It is, however, too soon to be reducing the world’s financial commitments to the AIDS pandemic and to be dismantling multi-national organizations that are diligently working to prevent new infections and to treat those who are infected with HIV.


Thirty-three million people worldwide – most of them in sub-Saharan Africa – are HIV-positive. Without continuing outreach activities, education and testing, these people could possibly unknowingly spread the virus. Without outreach and education others, who are HIV-negative, may not receive the messages that will help them from becoming infected. And, unlike the developed world, the majority of people with HIV/AIDS on the African continent still do not have access to the ARVs that are making the disease manageable in countries like the United States.


More resources must be dedicated to combat other diseases around the world that sicken and kill many more people than does HIV/AIDS. But this must not be an either/or situation. The solution to reduce deaths due to malaria or pneumonia is not to take funds from HIV/AIDS and apply it to other diseases. It is to fully fund more efforts that will reduce disease and save lives around the globe.


The critics who chose World AIDS Day to call for a realignment of funds to fight global disease believe that there is a scarcity of resources – that there is not enough to combat malaria and HIV/AIDS and other diseases. I don’t believe that. I believe that we have the resources to do more, but we lack the will.


If a day comes when HIV infection rates are falling everywhere in the world; when everyone with HIV/AIDS has access to medications that may keep them alive; when HIV/AIDS has truly become a manageable disease for everyone on the planet; then I will gratefully endorse a realignment of HIV/AIDS funding and a dismantling of AIDS organizations and efforts. But World AIDS Day 2008 is not that day.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Remembering Sibongile

This story was originally published in my book,

Never Give Up: Vignettes from Sub-Saharan Africa in the Age of AIDS.


The other day I was rummaging through some files looking for a piece of information on AIDS or South Africa. I don’t even remember now what I was looking for or why I needed it, because something I came across in one of those files sidetracked me.

Tucked between magazines, reports, and notes was a yellowed article from a 2001 township newspaper with the headline, “Hearty party wish for shy Sibongile.” A photo of Sibongile and her aunt accompanied the clipping. It was the photo of Sibongile that grabbed my attention. I pulled the article out of the file and read it for the first time since I filed it years ago. Then I read it a few more times before returning it and closing the file. I could file the article, but I haven’t been able to file the memory it evoked.

I met Sibongile only once – on Valentine’s Day, 2001, a few months before her birthday party that was reported on by the Guguletu press. My partner and I were finishing up a day of meetings with Reverend Spiwo Xapile in the townships when the Reverend told us we had one more stop to make. He said we were going to a local hospital to visit an AIDS orphan who was very ill. “You need to come with me,” he said, “to meet Sibongile and take pictures of her. Americans need to see what AIDS is doing to our children, and you will need photos to tell Sibongile’s story.”

I remember the drive from Guguletu to the hospital as being very quiet. Reverend Xapile was right, of course. If Americans were ever going to understand AIDS in Africa, we would need to connect with the issue on a personal level. I was just extremely uncomfortable with the prospect of taking a sick child’s photo. I was steeling myself for emotions I might be about to experience. The Reverend and my partner also seemed to be caught up in their own thoughts. We drove in silence.

I remember asking one question on that drive: “How old is Sibongile?”

“Four years,” Reverend Xapile answered.

At the hospital, we walked down a long corridor into the children’s ward. There were maybe two dozen beds in the large room – a child in each one. Some children were sleeping; others were awake and playing quietly in their beds or just looking around the room. A few women sat by the sides of beds next to children. Maybe they were moms, grannies, or aunties. Most children had no one at their side.

Sibongile was sleeping. She wore a child’s hospital gown. Her broken right arm, the result of a fall, was in a cast. Her arm might heal, but the HIV-related pneumonia that kept sending her back to the hospital would eventually kill her. My partner and I stood on one side of the bed while Reverend Xapile stood on the other and gently nudged Sibongile awake.

The Reverend spoke to Sibongile in Xhosa. She had that awakened-from-a-sound-sleep kind of confusion. Her responses to Reverend Xapile were so soft that we could not hear them, even though we stood just feet away.

Sibongile didn’t know there were two white Americans next to her until the Reverend told her and she slowly turned her head to see us. She was frightened. We both immediately smiled, said “molo,” and did what most Americans would do in that situation – we gave her gifts.

We had bought a box of candied hearts and a Mickey Mouse doll in honor of Valentine’s Day. Sibongile took the gifts but didn’t respond to them. She lay in her hospital bed, looking at the Reverend and at us, holding Mickey, but saying nothing and doing nothing.

Reverend Xapile broke the silence with, “Take some photos.”

I took my camera out, made some inane comments to Sibongile about taking her picture, and began shooting. My partner did the same with his digital camera. It was awful. Sibongile didn’t respond to the cameras, the Reverend looked pained, and my partner and I were uncomfortable in our roles as amateur photographer/voyeurs. I clicked. My partner snapped. We all felt terrible.

Looking at Sibongile’s image in the screen of the digital camera, my partner got an idea. He showed Sibongile the small screen of the camera that displayed the picture of her he had just taken. The apprehension on Sibongile’s face immediately disappeared, replaced with a look of utter astonishment. As my partner scrolled back through all of the photos he had taken of her, Sibongile’s surprise turned into sheer joy. If a photo had the Reverend in it, she would look at him, then look back at the camera, and then look at the Reverend again. She did the same with photos that showed me in the frame. She would look at the image, then at me, and then back at the camera, simultaneously confused and amazed.

Within minutes, Sibongile had gone from being totally listless and frightened by our visit, to being almost animated. She used her unbroken arm to propel herself into an upright sitting position. My partner would take more photos, these of a smiling Sibongile, and show them to her. Her smile erupted into laughter, and she began rapidly speaking to Reverend Xapile in Xhosa. Now she was playing with her Mickey Mouse doll and eating the candied hearts we had given her. She got out of her hospital bed and sat on a child’s plastic chair next to her bed, with Mickey in one hand and the box of candy in the other.

This seemed like a good time to go. Reverend Xapile explained that we needed to leave and Sibongile nodded, never breaking the smile on her face. My partner took one last photo of a beaming Sibongile as we walked out of the hospital.

A few days after our visit, Sibongile was well enough to leave the hospital. Her aunt picked her up and took her home. Sibongile would be in and out of the hospital a few more times, but she was well enough to be home with her aunt for her fifth birthday party, which according to the newspaper article, was a huge affair attended by neighbors, members of Sibongile’s church, and more than 40 children from her preschool.

I wasn’t at the party, but I have been to enough children’s birthday parties to imagine what it must have been like. And on Valentine’s Day, 2001, for a brief period of time, when Sibongile was discovering something new in a digital camera, I got a glimpse of what she would have been like had she been born healthy and had a chance to have a normal childhood and a normal life.

I know what happened to Sibongile after her last birthday party, but that’s not how I want to remember her. I want to remember her as the little girl who sat with her Mickey Mouse doll and candies, waving good-bye to us at the hospital. I want to imagine her as the local newspaper reported – as a regular kid dancing at her birthday party with “her hips swaying from side to side.”