On the corner of Ellis and Divisadero in San Francisco, California, a once vacant lot strewn with bottles and trash is now home to Fresh Start Farms, a verdant garden of hope and lettuce greens, established by visionary Ruth Brinker.
Bounded by chainlink fencing, this 1/4-acre lot is lush with greens in raised beds, and on the perimeter, brightly colored edible flowers and herbs such as nasturtium, mustard, rosemary, borage and calendula.
Fresh Start Farms, no ordinary garden, produces top-quality designer greens, sold as salad mix to some of San Francisco's finest restaurants, including Stars Cafˇ, Fleur De Lys, Cafˇ Kati, and Aqua. More important, Fresh Start Farms grows lives, providing training and employment to San Francisco's formerly homeless (now in subsidized housing), and a few Russian refugees. The goal is self-sufficiency, to get participants off the welfare rolls.
Ruth Brinker founder of such philanthropy is no ordinary woman. This demure, 73-year-old woman with short, wavy gray hair and greenish-blue eyes is often referred to as The City's Mother Teresa.
Helping people is second nature to Brinker, a widow with two daughters. Starting in the mid-1970s, she managed a Meals on Wheels Center and later became director of Trinity Church's food program for the homeless, which grew from 50 to 500 under her tutelage. Until recently, however, she was best known for her founding of Project Open Hand, a meal-delivery program serving hot, high-quality meals daily to thousands of AIDS patients too sick to care for themselves. Project Open Hand has served as the model for similar organizations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.
Though Brinker is characteristically unpretentious and soft-spoken, her career experiences have given her a necessarily tough interior.
Her parting with Project Open Hand in 1991 was tumultuous-"Founder's Syndrome," she calls it. Essentially, Brinker was ousted. The newly hired CEO and board chair misled the other board members into believing that Brinker had run out of ideas and energy. A few months later the Board removed the CEO, but the PR damage had already been done. The community assailed Open Hand for firing its founder, and financial support dwindled. Now, Project Open Hand is healthy again and fences are mended: Brinker still lends a hand-and her credibility-by attending fund-raising events.