Hand to heart – Celebrating 20 years, Open Hand becomes a ‘gift to the larger community’
Posted by pozlife on October 14, 2007
Volunteers and staff prepare dinner at Open Hand, the non-profit meal distribution program that has been providing food for people with HIV/AIDS and other chronic illness for 20 years. (Photo by Ryan Lee)
FOR ALL OF THE PAIN AND LOSS AIDS caused over the last quarter century, it brought out the best in gay men and lesbians who cared for one another, fed each other and fought to die in dignity when few others were paying attention.
The greatest generation of gay Americans in the early days of the AIDS epidemic built mini hospitals like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, and meal distribution programs like Atlanta’s Project Open Hand — and they did so while their friends and lovers were dying.
“That was a historic response to a crisis, I think the likes of which this country has never seen before,” says Stephen Woods, executive director of Open Hand. The organization, going into its third decade delivering food to chronically ill clients, is dropping the “Project” from its name to evoke a sense of permanence.
“At that time it was totally end-of-life care we were giving to people,” says Woods, who has been with Open Hand for all 20 years of its existence. “It was comfort food, so to speak, taking care of people in their final days.”
The non-profit that started when some friends began cooking for 14 gay men living with AIDS has gone through the same ups and downs as the disease that sparked it, but is celebrating growth and change as it marks its 20th anniversary. Now preparing an average of 4,500 meals per day, Open Hand recently moved many of its offices from the primary facility on Ottley Drive in order to enlarge the kitchen and install a walk-in cooler and freezer.
Open Hand christens the expanded cooking space with an Oct. 18 “Party in the Kitchen” fundraiser, with a VIP reception inside the Open Hand kitchen before the main event at Mason Murer Fine Art gallery. The night includes a silent auction, along with about nine cooking stations where local celebrity chefs prepare appetizers.
OPEN HAND’S 20-YEAR MAKEOVER isn’t limited
to the shortening of its name.
“‘Project’ kind of insinuates that it’s short-term, that it might not be around next week after we’ve finished this project,” says John Penninger, director of marketing for Open Hand.
The agency also has a new logo — a green tree with a heart-shaped red apple in the middle, replacing a silhouette of steam rising out of a bowl — which focus groups suggested captured the organization’s emphasis on compassion and nutrition, and unlikely to be mistaken as a coffee house or soup kitchen, Penninger says.
With the advent of life-saving AIDS drugs, the make-up of Open Hands clients has changed as well. People living with HIV/AIDS account for about 25-30 percent of those receiving meals, with the elderly and people with diabetes accounting for a large portion of clients, Woods says.
“The people started getting better, their needs changed, and the organization changed with them,” says Woods, noting that the major emphasis at Open Hand is now on nutritious eating. “We’re not talking about HIV/AIDS, we’re not talking about diabetes, we’re talking about the role of nutrition in the prevention and treatment of these chronic diseases.”
Open Hand has coined the term “comprehensive nutrition care” to describe its present-day operations, which include a branch called “Good Measure Meals” that provides gourmet health food sold at local gyms, with proceeds going to Open Hand.
Much of Open Hand’s recent growth is due to the 125 volunteers who help prepare meals every day, and Woods’ vision and leadership, says Carl Proctor, deputy director of Open Hand.
GROWTH HASN’T ALWAYS BEEN EASY at
“We had a growth period in the ’90s, going from 10 clients to 900 clients, that was a point that really threatened the survival of the whole organization,” Woods says. “We were having trouble keeping up.”
Project Open Hand’s powerful love and nurturing of people dying of AIDS made it difficult for some gay men with an emotional attachment to the early days of AIDS to embrace the organization offering its services to other populations, Woods says. Ultimately, expanding its kitchen table was the right choice, he says.
“It was as if we were saying this is a gift we can offer the larger community,” Woods says. “This is how you treat your neighbor.”