Project Angel Heart’s Founder Remembers Fighting AIDS with Food
When Charles Robbins, Project Angel Heart’s founder, visited Denver to help celebrate the organization’s 25th birthday, he sat down with staff members for a Q&A session (click here to watch the video). Here’s the story of his inspiration for what he calls “compassion delivered.”
In 1991, Robbins moved to Denver from Los Angeles and started looking for opportunities to volunteer for organizations helping people with HIV/AIDS.
“You have to realize that this is in context in 1991,” he told us. “People who were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS generally had a life expectancy of anywhere from three to five years. Some passed away earlier than that. I had the opportunity to volunteer my time in Los Angeles at Project Angel Food [a nonprofit that delivers meals to people with HIV/AIDS]… I was really moved by what was happening. And the essential ingredient of that mission is really just compassionate, caring nutrition.”
Inspired by his belief in the importance of delivering compassion and nutrition to people with HIV/AIDS, Robbins spoke with Father Al Halverstadt, the rector at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church at the time, about his desire to recreate the experience he had in Los Angeles. Father Al brought Robbins into the kitchen at St. Barnabas, and asked, “Will this work?” In what Robbins calls a jaw-dropping moment, Project Angel Heart was born.
Initially, because the kitchen required repairs, Robbins asked restaurants for food that could be delivered to people living with HIV/AIDS. “I reached out to Racine’s restaurant,” he said, “and got that very first tray of lasagna—that infamous tray of lasagna—and we all gathered in the kitchen at St. Barnabas. I went and picked up the lasagna, brought it back, we made a salad to go with it… and so we put together a little package of lasagna, salad, a red rose, and some magazines… we went out on our routes and then we met back afterwards, and it was just incredibly humbling. “
That first delivery to 12 people living with HIV/AIDS meant so much to Robbins and the volunteers working with him that they decided to keep doing it every weekend. “We didn’t know a lot, other than we just had a lot of passionate people who wanted to make a difference, and people were still unfortunately dying from AIDS,” Robbins said. He decided to name the fledgling organization Project Angel Heart, “because it’s love that’s the main ingredient. You get the essence of what we’re doing- we’re delivering love.”
After a few months of weekend deliveries, volunteer fundraising, and donated kitchen repairs, Project Angel Heart began preparing the meals they delivered. Recognizing the importance of providing a highly nutritious meal that clients could actually eat, and to differentiate Project Angel Heart from other meal providers at the time, Robbins took special care to modify meals. “The whole idea about delivering nutrition is that wasting syndrome was a very common issue for individuals that were living with AIDS and they couldn’t tolerate a lot of things. They became lactose intolerant or had acidic issues,” he said. The earliest menus focused on comfort food and seasonal specialties, like meatloaf and squash soup, and contained ingredients that clients experiencing intolerance and food sensitivities could eat.
Given the challenge of finding grants and other funds for HIV/AIDS services, Robbins relied mostly on individual donors to get Project Angel Heart off the ground. “There was a lot of stigma with HIV and AIDS then. A lot of stigma. It was a very difficult time,” he remembers. “People didn’t want to get associated with it; there were no foundations that would fund.” Generous friends and parishioners from St. Barnabas wrote the first checks (and bought the first walk-in cooler, which was stored in the parking lot behind St. Barnabas), and Robbins followed up with small events- house parties, coin cans in bars, spaghetti dinners. “It was so grassroots,” he said. “It felt like such a struggle at the beginning. But I would say after the second year people were talking about the organization.”
What Project Angel Heart was really built on was volunteer support. “People really wanted to be there. There was a progressive, really wonderful understanding that regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, whatever…that people were dying. And they [volunteers] really saw through the muck and mire and wanted to be of service,” said Robbins. And with the reality of the early days of AIDS and wasting syndrome, he and the volunteers saw what home-delivered meals could do for people living with HIV/AIDS. “Project Angel Heart had a lot of impact on sustaining people,” he said. “I know individuals wouldn’t have made it as long as they did.”
Robbins was eventually able to hire a small staff and served as executive director of Project Angel Heart until 1995, when he moved back to Los Angeles. He continued his work in HIV/AIDS service and is currently the chief advancement officer at AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA Health). Project Angel Heart has grown and become a nutritional safety net for thousands of critically ill Coloradans. In 2016, the organization will serve 325,000 medically tailored meals, free of charge, to more than 2,800 Coloradans living with life-threatening illnesses like cancer, kidney/heart/lung disease, and HIV/AIDS.
Today, Robbins looks back on his time at Project Angel Heart with gratitude and pride. He and his husband, Damon Romine, are constantly running into people in Los Angeles with connections to Project Angel Heart, and Robbins says he loves to hear their stories and talk about his role with the organization.
“The sad part was that we lost so many people,” he remembers. “But for the volunteers at the time, and I know your volunteers today still get the opportunity to feel that compassion as they deliver a meal. It was the first time in many, many, many of [the clients’] lives that they at least felt respected and they felt like somebody cared about them, because the majority of their families had abandoned them, the community had abandoned them…. with the context at the time, I’m incredibly proud of the people who came together, the board members and the people who started giving.”