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Open Arms
By John Rabe
October 9, 1997

Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Every weekday morning at a red brick church near Dinkytown in Minneapolis, volunteers gather in your typical church basement. They're cooking and then loading complete meals into styrofoam take-out containers, and putting these, plus some groceries, into brown paper bags. Then, volunteer drivers take the food to about 120 people with AIDS and - in many cases - their kids.

This is the Open Arms program, run by a cadre of volunteers and three paid staff members. It's a lifeline for people with AIDS who don't have the engergy to cook and the means to pay for food. It means two hot meals a day instead of poor food - or no food.

Bill Rowe founded Open Arms a dozen years ago. He's a short, grizzled, retired professor who met me in the bustling church basement, then drove me on his delivery route.

Rowe: This is basically two meals, Monday through Friday. There's a soup and a sandwich, there's the entree, a carbo, vegetable, salad, dessert. So, they get that Monday through Friday. And then we send out on Saturday, a pantry order for breakfast and food for the whole week. If they want extra food for the weekend, we also will send an extra meal, especially for families.

MPR: Why do you do this?

Rowe: Well, I was involved as a care-giver for a very good friend of mine in San Francisco, and I found - he was living in a hospice where everybody had to arrange for their own food, and he had a lot of money, so his food was very good. But when I was in the kitchen, some of the other people were having warmed up hot dogs, you know. So I just said to the manager that "Why don't I just cook for everybody? It would be simpler." And then when I came back here after my friend died, I became a volunteer at the Minnesota AIDS Project, and I did case management as a volunteer - took care of 19 people, before they all died. I started doing the food because it seemed - emotionally - an easier thing to do than taking care of people who were in the final stages of AIDS, you know. And then the home delivery stuff started, as I said, because the people got too ill to come out, and they still needed the food.

MPR: Did it start off as mainly gay men who had AIDS?

Rowe: Oh yeah. Oh, the profile was very different in the beginning. And the profile of the epidemic: 36-year-old, white, middle-class man living in South Minneapolis, bi-sexual or gay. Now, of course, we have lots of families, we have lots of people of color. We have a disproportionate number of women. Typical family situation is dad has died. In the meantime, he wittingly, or unwittingly infected mom. Mom is sick, and there are four kids.

MPR: I came down here about 15 minutes ago. There are about eight tables in this church basement - the big, long, church basement-type tables - they were filled up on one-half with grocery bags that have lists inside, the other half with a bunch of those little styrofoam containers for single-servings of meals, I guess. What's happened to all this stuff? It's moved out now.

Rowe: Oh yeah. It's on its way. Doorbells are ringing!

Audio: Car noise.

Rowe: We're going now to Barbara. Barbara's really quite fantastic. She's very dedicated to helping Open Arms and she does a lot. Sharp, sharp lady. She was diagnosed in Baltimore and came back here because she had family here.

Audio: Knock at the door.

Rowe: It's Bill, Barbara!

Audio: Door squeaks open

Barbara: Hi! How are ya?

Rowe: This is John Rabe.

Barbara: Hi, John.

MPR: Pleasure to meet you.

Barbara: Pleased to meet you. Come on in. It's one of those days where I just did not feel - when I came back - this is home. Minnesota's home, so when I came back home, one thing I did know about from working in social services is that they did have services here. So I found Bill, I got hooked up, and I was able to like, make a lot of other people aware of it, and it's just worked out really, really well for me.

MPR: Why does it help you? Why do you need it?

Barbara: Why do I need it? Well, number one, I get $10 in food stamps per month. I don't know about you, but I'm not that creative. (laughter) And number two, there's days that I just don't have the energy to get up and fix things, and they tend to be more days than not lately.

Audio: Road noise

Rowe: During this summer, we added an enormous number of kids because they're home from school. There's no school lunch, and it coincided with the cutback on food stamps. So we - I think one week we added 25 kids, and what Paul did was he phoned the parents, and asked what your kids will eat, cause we learned there's no point in sending food to people that they won't eat. So, we devised some kid menus. Like one father said to me, "If it doesn't look like it came from Embers, my kids won't eat it." Like when we do cheeseburgers, that's a very popular thing. The first we sent cheeseburgers out, I thought it was kind of disgusting. I thought, "Who wants a warmed-up cheeseburger?" Well, they LOVE 'em. We try to do things that are nutritionally appropriate, but at the same time, we also have to try to do things that will fit the kind of food that people are accustomed to.

Audio: Scene changes to apartment building.

Rowe: Now there are four people in this building, but they don't know one another. And basically, they don't want to know one another. So, we have to be - you see there's nothing on this bag that says who we are.

MPR: Right.

Dean: Hi.

Rowe: Hi. How are ya?

Dean: Good. Hi.

MPR: Hey Dean. How are you?

Dean: Good.

Rowe: A visitor.

Dean: Great. Come on in. Oh you got - I'm in a wheelchair. It's very difficult for me being with the AIDS, and the car accident, to be confined. So it's really - I really appreciate this program so much. It's really been nice talkin' to everybody, and I hate to cut you short, but I have to go eat my lunch! (laughter)

Audio: Road noise

Rowe: Dean, um, is not doing very well. He's in a wheelchair. He's always very cheerful though. Very friendly, and I think he has a good support network.

MPR: Why does he need this food help?

Rowe: He does not have the energy to prepare the food, and I don't think he has the financial resources to you know, really to acquire, you know, well - shopping would be a major thing for him. You know.

MPR: Who's this next person we're going to go see?

Rowe: Now, this is Mary. We have been delivering to her for over five years. She became ill when she was living in New York. And she came back here because her family lived here. And she's doing pretty well.

Mary: Hi Bill.

Rowe: Oh hi, Mary.

MPR: Let's look in the grocery bag. What do you have?

Mary: Well, I bet flowers in there.

Rowe: This is the pantry order. And bagels.

Mary: No, tomorrow's flowers.

Rowe: Tomorrow's flowers. Yeah, you remember.

Mary: Well, gee, I get it.

Rowe: Egg salad sandwich, tossed green salad.

Mary: Oh boy. I came back - I went and left to Chicago, Kansas City, New York - and I came back here in '89, after I found out that I was sick. Because New York, you don't get no help like you do here. So I said, "Well, if I go back home, I betcha I could get some help." And I've got a lot of help. They make you feel so important. It's just neat. Bring you flowers Tuesday. My birthday's Saturday, I know they're going to have a big cake for me and bouquet of flowers, since last year they did. It was nice. Last year was the first year they knew my birthday. It really meant a lot to me 'cause I don't have no family here.

Rowe: It's pretty simple. All we have to have is a verification of HIV status. You know, a doctor can fax it to us, or the case worker can. We make an effort not to hassle people. I mean, my rule is if we get a request for food before 10:00 am, the person gets food that day. We can verify things later.

MPR: Are you always able to fulfill that?

Rowe: Yup. One day I thought we couldn't, and one of drivers said "Well, that's OK. I'll stop at McDonald's, and I'll get a meal for him there."

Bill Rowe, founder of Open Arms, the state's only meal delivery program for people with AIDS. Six major theatres, including Penumbra and the Guthrie, are holding a season of benefits for Open Arms. Please call Open Arms at 612-331-3640 for ticket information.

  • October 16 7:30 p.m. Racing Demon at the Guthrie Theater (reception with food provided by Sawatdee begins at 5:30)

  • November 7 8:00 p.m. Angels in America U of M Theater Department

  • November 27 8:00 p.m. Lion in Winter at Theater in the Round

  • December 4 8:00 p.m. Black Nativity at the Penumbra Theater

  • December 7 2:00 p.m. Santaland Diaries at Eye of the Storm Theater.