Ganga Stone

GANGA STONE'S (b. 1944)  LIFE FIRST CAME INTO focus because of a package of bread mix. It was May 1985, and Stone, a hospice volunteer, was delivering groceries to homebound AIDS patients in Manhattan when Richard, a 32-year-old actor, weakly threw her package on the floor. "What can I do with a mix?" he moaned. Stunned, Stone stared at the helpless man: His face was swollen with cancerous lesions and he probably had thrush, a mouth infection aggravated by yeast products. Even if he had the strength to bake bread, he couldn't have eaten it. "Death was in his face, and there was nothing I could do," Stone, 52, recalls. "But meanwhile, he needed cooked food—and that was doable."

That day, Stone bought food from the corner deli for Richard. Nine years later she is known as the charismatic founder and president of God's Love We Deliver, an organization with a $5.5 million annual budget, which cooks and delivers more than 1,400 meals daily to AIDS patients throughout the New York City area.
Today nearly 2,000 volunteers carry on her merciful mission. Joan Rivers now holds fund-raisers, New York City Ballet star Heather Watts chops vegetables, and Blaine Trump, sister-in-law of The Donald, makes home deliveries.

An ecumenicist, Stone believes helping the dying also heals the living. "I see what we do as worship and not social work," she says. "We're tendering respect and love to the Lord." But behind this lofty notion is an earthy woman, a '60s survivor who has seen more than her share of adventure. And to Ganga, God is a friend and protector, rather than an abstract concept. "I talk about Him not as some dirty little secret but as the root of my existence—which is unusual for someone who's not a nun," she says. Yet Stone—who maintains her serenity by playing taped Hindi chants in her office—is hardly a marshmallow. "I've had people try to bring me down," she says, "but I know how to push back hard."

Finding a guru transformed her. In 1975, Stone became a devout follower of India's Swami Muktananda, who gave her the Hindu name Ganga. Her son chose to stay with his father, and she spent two meditative years at the swami's ashram near Bombay. By the time she returned to the U.S., Stone says, "I knew I had to serve or die."

And serve she did. After her 1985 encounter with Richard, Stone began cooking meals for AIDS patients in her own kitchen and delivering them by bicycle. As demand grew, she prevailed on restaurants to donate meals. Says Marvin Paige, owner of Claire, a Manhattan seafood restaurant: "You could never say no to Ganga." By 1987 a $90,000 gift from the Men's Fashion Association and a state grant provided the seed money to set up a kitchen.