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Originally published in Lavender Magazine, June 2020, updated November 2020
A nonprofit that started amidst an epidemic nearly 35 years ago once again has stepped up to help Minnesotans in need during COVID-19.
Open Arms of Minnesota launched in 1986 when founder Bill Rowe cooked in his apartment and started delivering meals to men living with AIDS who had become too sick to cook for themselves.
Executive Director Leah Hébert Welles knows the organization’s past plays a large role in its future. “Our leadership has always been LGBT and our Board and staff have always included members of the community,” Hébert Welles says. “Over one-third of our clients are affected by HIV, and we will continue to honor our commitment to the HIV/AIDS community as our legacy.”
After 20 years of serving individuals living with HIV/AIDS, Open Arms expanded its client base and now serves meals to Minnesotans with cancer, MS, ALS and other life-threatening illnesses, along with their caregivers and children. In 2020, the organization expects to prepare and deliver more than 600,000 meals, free of charge.
The mission is incredibly heartwarming, and it’s what drew me to the nonprofit as an employee. In April, I left a career as a television producer to help Open Arms expand its outreach.
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Open Arms, based in Minneapolis, follows the notion that food is medicine. Organic vegetables are grown at five farms around the Twin Cities. That produce is used in the meals prepared by chefs and packaged with the help of volunteers. Open Arms has actively expanded their staff of Registered Dietitians, who guide trained chefs in developing healthy, delicious menu items tailored to specific illnesses.
A week’s worth of meals are then delivered to homes around the metro by volunteers. In a typical year, approximately 6,000 people volunteer with Open Arms. Mel Barr from Minneapolis has volunteered there for 18 years.
“I was immediately impressed with how well-run this nonprofit organization is,” Barr tells Lavender. “It’s been a great opportunity to be involved with such a dynamic group of individuals whose focus is on a very important and much-needed mission.”
Due to COVID-19, Barr’s duties have shifted. He carefully cleans and sterilizes the shelving, carts, and delivery bags meals go in. He volunteers every weekday for nearly three hours.
Says Barr, “I enjoy the variety of opportunities to connect with others and help those in need. The goal for everyone is providing healthy, nutritious food for people with life-threatening illnesses in the most efficient way possible while keeping the staff, the volunteers, and the clients safe.”
The passion of volunteers like Barr is what Leah Hébert Welles loves so much. “Many nonprofits use volunteers in their operations. Open Arms is powered by them. We were founded by a volunteer, operated for many years exclusively with volunteers, and today, volunteers continue to be the heart and soul of Open Arms. Over 7,500 volunteers a year make our work possible and they come from every community, background and walk of life. They are elderly, young, people of all races, religions and ethnicities, straight folks and members of the LGBT community. They give up time with their own families and friends and help vulnerable and ill people they don’t know, donating 70,000 hours of time every year to help our clients. We are building a community of kindness at Open Arms, and our clients feel that. Each delivery of medically-tailored meals sends a message of hope and love to a client who might be isolated or struggling that day.”
Ryan Atkinson from Minneapolis has received meals from Open Arms since 2018. “Receiving meals is extremely convenient. I have several meal options and varieties to choose from,” Atkinson says. “During this pandemic, Open Arms has been really helpful. I run out of food pretty quickly, and Open Arms steps in and fills in the gap.” Atkinson’s favorite meal is the turkey burger with Swiss cheese.
More demand with less resources
Like many nonprofits, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted how Open Arms operates. Since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Minnesota, the nonprofit has seen a 35 percent increase in demand for its meal services. Anyone who is ill and needs help is currently not turned away.
“The health of our volunteers, staff and immunocompromised clients have to be our focus,” Hébert Welles says. “Because of that, virtually everything about how we operate has changed; from how many volunteers and staff are in our building at one time, to how much work we can get done by volunteers, to where we stage our meal delivery pick-up, to how we interact with our clients. We are seeing large ingredient cost increases, un-budgeted funds being spent on masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and other cleaners, added expenses for IT and computers, and increased staff expenses.”
In addition to changes at the Minneapolis kitchen, Open Arms was forced to cancel its largest yearly fundraising event, Moveable Feast, which was budgeted to bring in almost $500,000.
Open Arms accepts donations on its website and through Facebook.
For Hébert Welles, who has led Open Arms since 2013, the nonprofit’s mission has a profound meaning. “For one client, a favorite cookie made at Open Arms was the last thing he ate before he died, and that reminded me of our responsibility in the lives of our clients, and a humbling experience that makes me feel incredibly grateful to be here.”
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