Ruth Henricks has helped deliver meals to thousands of people, but it all started with one customer.

As CNN reports, Henricks owns and runs The Huddle, a diner in San Diego, California. Thirty years ago, the country’s AIDS epidemic came to Henricks’ diner in the form of a man named Scott. Henricks remembered:

“[He] was very thin, looked kind of sick, and he told me he was living with AIDS.”

Scott became a regular at The Huddle, where he would talk to Henricks about his health problems. He confided in her that he was sometimes too weak to go out and get food and that the only place he ever went to eat was the diner:

“I just remembered him telling me, ‘Ms. Ruth, if I’m not here, I’m not eating.'”

For about a year and a half, Scott would come to the diner, eat, and talk with Henricks. Then one day, he stopped showing up.

Posted by Special Delivery San Diego on Friday, September 14, 2018

Henricks tried to track Scott down, but couldn’t locate him. She regretted never getting his phone number or address. She told CNN:

“I could have taken him food. I knew what he liked to eat.”

Though she wasn’t able to help Scott anymore, Henricks was inspired to help others like him in her city. She sought help from volunteers, many of whom were regular customers at the diner, and launched Special Delivery San Diego.

At first, the nonprofit organization focused only on delivering home-cooked meals to people living with AIDS, about 76 per day. Then, in 1996, they expanded. Now, Special Delivery San Diego delivers meals to anyone who is suffering from a chronic illness. They make breakfast, lunch, and dinner for about 140 people every day, Monday through Friday.

Henricks notes that many of their clients lack the money to shop for food and are often housebound. Sometimes, the delivery driver is the only person they’ll see that day.

The group bought space next to the diner to accommodate their growing needs. People in need — those who can’t feed themselves or have difficulty leaving their homes — are referred to the organization by doctors or social workers. Over the years, they estimate they’ve served more than 1 million meals to about 6,000 different people.

Posted by Special Delivery San Diego on Thursday, July 13, 2017

Henricks told CNN that she’s inspired to keep up the deliveries because she can see how badly they are needed:

“At first, we delivered to people living with AIDS. At that time, people were actually dying very quickly. It was very traumatic for all of us to watch these people just waste away. We would hardly put them on meal service, and a month later somebody would be calling, saying, ‘Well, they’ve passed away.’ So, after a while, people were asking me, ‘How can you keep doing this and not get depressed?’

It’s bringing that love, that respect, that dignity to them in their last days. At least they don’t have to worry about where the next meal’s coming from.”

Alden Steffens has been receiving food from Special Delivery since 2010. Steffens has full-blown AIDS and says that he’s generally too drained to deal with cooking. He told CNN that the deliveries from Henricks’ organization have saved his life:

“It’s a joy every day when they ring the bell. It’s instant healing, even if you were sick five minutes before. They smile and they treat you like a wonderful equal.”

Henricks continued to adapt her organization to the needs of the community. When she saw issues with food availability, she opened a food pantry for the community, which now serves about 800 families a month. When she learned many of their clients have diabetes, she introduced a program that included diabetes-friendly groceries and nutrition classes.

Now 75, Henricks has no plans to slow down. Even as it’s branched out past meal delivery, the organization is still heavily dependent on volunteers, some of whom have been there since the beginning.

While Henricks admitted to CNN that she promised the diabetic program would be the last addition to their work, she can’t predict the future. Her goal, as always, is to make sure the people in her community are fed. As she told CNN:

“I can’t promise that everyone in San Diego will be able to eat tonight. But we’re going to try our best to feed the people in our corner of the world.”

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