“It was 17 years ago this summer a group of volunteer growers and environmentalists approached us with a bold and exciting opportunity – organic produce for people living with AIDS,” recounts Lori Cannon, Co-Founder of Vital Bridges, an organization with a mission to help people impacted by HIV and AIDS to improve their health. “Knowing full well the challenge of being immune compromised, these terrific volunteers devised a program to grow nutritious and healthy fruits and vegetables for distribution to our clients all summer long.”

These volunteers were the founding members of Uptown’s Ginkgo Organic Gardens, whose goal was to turn the surplus produce of urban gardens into donations for local non-profits that otherwise couldn’t afford organic foods. Twice per week during the spring and summer, volunteers come together to plant, maintain, and harvest the nearly 1,500 pounds of fresh fruits, herbs, and vegetables that are donated annually to Vital Bridges – they even deliver the produce themselves using bicycle trailers.

When Lori calls being immune-compromised a “challenge,” she’s being modest: the dietary needs of a person living with HIV/AIDS are incredibly complex. The AIDS virus attacks T Helper cells, a type of white blood cell that provides direction to our B cells (those that actually produce antibodies and antigens). Numerous studies have shown a direct link between increased consumption of vitamins A, C, and E (“ACE”) and T Helper cell health and quantity; thus, harvesting ACE-packed produce for three hours at Ginkgo is like harvesting three more potential hours of good health for Vital Bridges’ clients.

Today, Vital Bridges is able to serve over 2,000 clients annually and the produce they receive from Ginkgo is a major factor in this outreach. “The families, clients, and care givers all delight in the magnificent selection and the gracious growers and volunteers: the passion and excitement grow with every harvest,” Cannon Says. “We consider ourselves so fortunate to be partners with this unique and important program –it’s proven to be one of the many life-lines needed to combat this dreaded disease.

Chicago Cares currently runs three programs with Vital Bridges year-round: Grocery Land South on the South side, Shopping on Lake on the West side, and Shopping on Broadway on the North side. Volunteers help in the pantry by “shopping” for and packaging the items clients select from the list of available goods. We bring volunteers to work in the gardens at Ginkgo on Saturday mornings April – October.

For more information about Vital Bridges visit www.vitalbridges.org. Information about Ginkgo Organic Gardens can be found at www.ginkgogardens.org or you can check out their blog at http://ginkgogardens.blogspot.com/. To volunteer with Chicago Cares at either location, please go to www.chicagocares.org/calendar and contact the Team Coordinator for your desired project date.