Kimberly Vrudny

Open Arms of Minnesota

In HIV/AIDS, Hunger, Non-profits / NGOs, Poverty, United States on August 10, 2010 at 1:00 am

Its mission is deceptively simple: “With open arms, we nourish body, mind, and soul. By preparing meals for and delivering meals to people living with HIV/AIDS, ALS, MS, and breast cancer in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Open Arms of Minnesota aims to provide meals to anyone who is living with a chronic or life-limiting illness in the Twin Cities metro area.

Open Arms of Minnesota has been in the not-for-profit business of providing nutritious and delicious meals since 1986 when its founder, Bill Rowe, prepared meals for a group of friends who had contracted HIV/AIDS and who had become too ill to shop for or prepare their own food. Soon, a group of volunteers formed to keep the meals going out the door—and they haven’t stopped, yet. Just recently, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar delivered the organization’s two-millionth meal.

Over time, Open Arms of Minnesota was compelled to widen its reach. Its staff recognized its global connection to people living with, and dying from, HIV/AIDS in South Africa, and began partnering with the J. L. Zwane Center in Guguletu (a township outside of Cape Town) to provide nutritious meals to member of an HIV/AIDS support group that had formed at the Center, as well as to distribute food parcels twice annually to families with members living with the virus. Back at home, too often the staff took calls from people experiencing other chronic illnesses: ALS and MS, for example, and were torn apart when they had to say “I’m sorry, no—our mission is to provide meals only for those living with HIV/AIDS.” So, in 2004, Open Arms expanded its home delivery meal program also to women undergoing treatment for breast cancer, as well as to people living with ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and MS (multiple sclerosis). A capital campaign enabled the organization to move into a new building in 2010, where the kitchen is the obvious focus of its entire enterprise. As they emphasize at Open Arms, “the kitchen is the heart of who we are.”

I began working as a volunteer at Open Arms in 2003, and was impacted profoundly by the alternative universe represented by this determined organization, where compassion, kindness, and gentleness of spirit were the norm rather than the exception, where even small things were considered with great intention, and where the dignity of every person who passed through the door was recognized genuinely with warmth and with grace. I was intrigued by the ethos of the place, and was happy to deliver meals regularly for the next several years.

My engagement with the organization deepened in 2004, when I inquired about the possibility of teaching my course “Theology of Beauty” at the University of St. Thomas with a service-learning component in partnership with Open Arms of Minnesota. At St. Thomas, “Service-learning incorporates meaningful community partnerships into coursework, allowing students to contribute to the community while gaining knowledge relevant to their academic and professional lives.” Students would deliver meals twice monthly throughout the semester, writing in academic journals about how their observations and experiences informed an understanding of Beauty—in theology, understood not as something “pretty,” but as that which might cohere with the source of Existence, itself, the very nature of God insofar as such a nature can be known, and therefore associated with the True, Good, Just, Wise, and Compassionate. Open Arms was receptive to the possibility of establishing a partnership with the University that would be truly reciprocal: University students would supply the steadily increasing need for drivers to deliver meals to clients, while Open Arms would provide an opportunity for students to engage in response to a public health catastrophe about which they would learn more in class. Moreover, students would begin to see how people’s social location, and their “degrees of jeopardy” from power and privilege, coalesce to put them at greater risk to contract the virus, even while considering efforts of people like Paul Farmer (Harvard Medical Anthropologist and physician, as well as founder of Partners in Health), to mitigate the impact of structures of violence on those living in conditions of abject poverty.

The course was successfully piloted in 2004, and a grant from Minnesota Campus Compact enabled us to expand the partnership into other disciplines, and beyond the work of Open Arms, as well. Since that first course, fifteen professors representing thirteen different disciplines throughout the University have offered 50 sections of courses in partnership with Open Arms. For example, students learn about research methods in sociology by preparing and conducting surveys in application to real needs emerging for Open Arms, such as measuring client and volunteer satisfaction. Students in epidemiology courses learn about food-born illnesses and their greater threat to those living with compromised immune systems, and prepare food safety kits for Open Arms clients. In 2009-2010, the University reached a significant milestone. More than 1,000 students have interacted with the HIV/AIDS community in Minneapolis/St. Paul through the University’s HIV/AIDS initiatives.

The executive director of Open Arms of Minnesota, Kevin Winge, is often heard saying: “It’s about food.” In some ways, it really is that simple. Open Arms of Minnesota lifts the human spirit by inviting the community into its kitchen, that we might “break bread” together. Please support their work, if you are able. To learn more, visit Open Arms of Minnesota online.

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  1. This is crushingly, achingly beautiful. Thank you.

  2. This is just so beautiful, uplifting, humbling, inspiring.

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