JST EXCLUSIVE! How San Franciscans Can Make A Difference For Project Open Hand

BY JERRY ALONZO LEON

Courtesy: YouTube

It’s no secret that a nutritious diet is vital to maintaining a productive and healthy lifestyle.  For people who live below the poverty line, however, access to nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables may not always be attainable, which means a healthy diet is difficult (if not impossible) to sustain.  But for the impoverished many who live with HIV/AIDS, inadequate access to nutritious and healthy foods can literally mean the difference between life and death.

This is where Richie and Marie come in.

As long time volunteers at Project Open Hand (a nonprofit organization serving nutritious meals to seniors and the critically ill throughout San Francisco and Alameda County), they are just two of the 125 volunteers preparing 2,500 meals and 200 bags of groceries every day for their clients, who rely on this service to get the meals they need.

“We want to do everything we can to help ensure our clients continue receiving Meals With Love from Project Open Hand every day,” says Marie, who, along with her partner Richie, volunteer every Tuesday to personally hand deliver groceries and meals to the severely ill in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.

For Marie, born and raised in San Francisco, her involvement with the organization is a long standing one.

“I became involved with Project Open Hand in 1990 after graduating from college.  I was looking for a weekly volunteer opportunity and found Project Open Hand.  Delivering meals to people home-bound by AIDS quickly became the highlight of my week, and has been ever since”.

Project Open Hand San Francisco AIDS Walk 1

Experiencing firsthand the positive effects of her volunteerism has been a source of tremendous pride for Marie.  It has likewise served as a sober reminder of the detrimental effect that HIV/AIDS has had on her community.

“[G]rowing up in SF, many co-workers & friends over the years have contracted AIDS, and my best friend from college (and my former delivery partner for Project Open Hand) is HIV positive.”

Nonetheless, Marie is passionate about her work and once she met Richie (who joined Project Open hand in 2000), they have both been steadfast in their commitment to not just the organization but also bolstering support for HIV/AIDS awareness, treatment and prevention.

Richie, a native New Yorker, has a personal stake in the cause, “my parents were both heroin users in the 80’s in NY, shared dirty needles, and both ended up dying of AIDS-related illnesses.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 8% of all new HIV infections in 2010 were contracted by injection drug users, which accounted for 16% of those living with HIV in 2009.  Nearly 182,000 AIDS related deaths have occurred due to the use of unclean needles, including an estimated 4,218 deaths in 2010.

To help raise money for Project Open Hand, Richie and Marie participate in AIDS Walk San Francisco, the annual 10 km long walk through Golden Gate Park which helps to raise funds for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Project Inform and dozens of other AIDS related groups and organizations.

But these two aren’t your typical fundraisers.

Project Open Hand San Francisco AIDS Walk 4

To gather even more support they decided to host the AIDS Walk BBQ Fundraiser at their house in the Haight district.  Though their inaugural BBQ in 2002 raised only $1,500, each successive year, as word spread of their cause, locals such as chefs, comedians, and musicians lined up to offer their support and volunteer their services for the event.  Company sponsors including local microbreweries offered support by donating kegs of beer as well.

From the initial $500 they used out of their own pocket to start the event to a now ten hour long extravaganza complete with live music, comedy acts, live and silent auctions, burlesque performances, and plenty food and drink to go around, the fundraiser has proven to be an incredible boon to Project Open Hand (named the best nonprofit of 2013).  Last year alone they raised over $28,000 from this event, bringing the total amount of money they raised to $127,386.

The overwhelming support from regular people to company sponsors has not been lost on either Richie or Marie.

“Our sponsors are monumentally important to our fundraising efforts.  All of the drinks, food and entertainment are donated by local businesses, which allows us to take all the money raised and donate it.  Individual sponsors who donate money towards our fundraising goal are monumentally important as well…it takes a lot of $20 donations to reach $25,000!!”

Project Open Hand San Francisco AIDS Walk 2

As many as 400 people routinely show up to their event, a testament to the importance of their work.  Any and all items that are not sold at auction are placed in a garage sale the following weekend from their house.  The success of their efforts have made this duo, by far, the most prolific fundraisers for Project Open Hand.  It is a feat they attribute to their personal connection to the AIDS epidemic.

“I think we have been successful because we have personal, compelling stories about what got us involved in the first place.  We are also successful because we volunteer and have a personal knowledge of where the money goes and how it is spent.”

Unfortunately, comparable public support for global HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment initiatives continue to lag behind in areas that need it the most.  According to AIDS.gov, the vast majority (97%) of the 33.4 million individuals today who live with HIV reside in low to middle-income countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.  In the US, 1.1 million people live with HIV/AIDS and though these numbers have remained stable throughout the last couple of years, they have not necessarily declined either.

Given the disproportionate amount of people affected by HIV/AIDS in impoverished areas around the world, the continuous need to support and donate to AIDS research has never been greater.

“…there is still not a cure and it is still a dreaded disease in many parts of the world that do not have access to education and treatment as we do here.”

According to the World Health Organization, many people who live with HIV or who live in areas that pose a greater risk for it, do not have adequate access to prevention, care, or treatment.  This not only adversely affects individuals living with the disease but also their families, households and communities, not to mention the prospective economic growth of their nations.  These areas also tend to suffer from other infectious diseases, food insecurity, and other serious socio-economic problems.

Project Open Hand San Francisco AIDS Walk 3

The high prevalence rate for new HIV infections in these regions have become a trend that deeply concerns both Richie and Marie.  A trend that seems to be derived from a lack of funding for educational initiatives about HIV/AIDS prevention and care.  The need for responsible educational measures to combat ignorance (especially the impression that a cure has been developed) within at-risk communities is paramount to the success of lowering the rate of new HIV infections.  A sentiment that Richie and Marie equally share when it comes to the need of debunking myths such as believing “that it is not a big deal, that it is curable”.

“New infections are on the rise in the segment of the population that did not grow up during the AIDS crisis and do not remember AIDS as a deadly killer.”

In fact, the CDC estimates that 1,144,500 people, over the age of 13, are living with HIV including more than 180,000 who are unaware that they are infected.  HIV remains largely an urban dilemma, where the majority of individuals diagnosed with AIDS in 2011 reside in areas with 500,000 or more.  According to the CDC, areas hardest hit (that is, AIDS cases per 100,000 people) include Baton Rouge, LA; Miami, FL; Atlanta, GA; New Orleans, LA; and Baltimore, MD.  It’s also a problem that disproportionally affects the LGBT community, especially white and black gay men who make up more than 78% of new HIV infections in 2010, despite only representing 4% of the US population.

The need for awareness and support has never been more important, which is why each fundraiser has always been memorable for both Richie and Marie.

“Each fundraiser has been very special.  I am touched constantly by the generosity of my friends and neighborhood businesses.”

Fortunately, according to AIDS.gov, new global efforts to address the epidemic are showing signs of success as preventative efforts have reduced HIV prevalence in a number of countries and new HIV infections are believed to be declining.  Also, people living with HIV in poor countries have seen a 10-fold increase in treatment funding since 2002, reaching an estimated 4 million people in need of such care as of 2008.

Project Open Hand San Francisco AIDS Walk 6

It is a sure sign that positive change will be inevitable as long as awareness and education are properly funded and taught.  For as long as people like Richie and Marie continue their work, the prospects of a generation free of HIV/AIDS will soon enough be realized.

If you would like to attend the AIDS Walk BBQ Fundraiser, please visit their Facebook page for more details.  Please remember to bring along at least a $20 donation if you attend.

If you would like to donate to Richie and Marie and help support AIDS Walk, please visit their donation page.

For more information about the current state of the HIV/AIDS epidemic please visit the CDC’s page.

For more information about HIV/AIDS in the US and throughout the world, please visit the CDC’s website.

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Jerry Leon contributor profile

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