The AIDS epidemic during the latter part of the 20th century shook the entire nation. But San Francisco was one of the worst hit areas with over 28,000 people dying from AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic until 2010. In 1996, the National AIDS Memorial Grove was founded in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, serving as a place where family and friends could come to remember and honor the loved ones they lost to the disease. Since its inception the Grove has garnered a large following and has provided hundreds of individuals diagnosed with AIDS as well as their families and friends with a community for help and support.
On November 30, 2014, the eve of World AIDS Day, the annual Light in the Grove Gala was held to celebrate and remember the lives of those who were lost during and since the epidemic. The event, which has been sold out for the past four years attracted a large crowd, despite the ongoing torrential rains and was hosted at the Memorial Grove itself.
The night kicked off with a VIP reception above the grove where VIP attendees had the opportunity to mingle, enjoy hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. The night then transitioned to the Grove where all of the attendees joined to honor their lost loved ones. Each attendee was given a candle which they placed by the name of their loved one at the Circle of Friends. It was a bittersweet moment, filled with loss as well as hope for those still living with the disease.
Attendees then journeyed through the Grove, which was beautifully decorated with lights hanging in the trees above, a mist covered stream, a duo of classical musicians, some alluring light and visual effects and a series of graceful performers that could only be summed up as magical.
The main gala event was held within a large transparent tent. It included a delicious dinner, which included favorites such as meatballs and mushroom pasta, as well as cocktails. The night’s program included a surprise musical performance as well as speeches by Dan Bernal and Tom Raffin, the Light in the Grove Co-Chairs who spoke inspirationally about their experiences with the Grove and what it taught them. The Co-Chairs were followed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose efforts during the epidemic in Washington DC allowed for the Grove to be opened and for it to become a national landmark (with the same status as sites such as Mt. Rushmore and Pearl Harbor). Pelosi is well known and loved amongst the community of those affected by AIDS, especially in San Francisco, for her unwavering dedication to the cause, and her persistence in acquiring aid and decreasing stigmatization for those who were impacted.
Pelosi was followed by John Cunningham, Executive Director of the National AIDS Memorial Grove, as well as by Ken Henderson and Joe Seiler, Executive Director and Board Chair of The Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation (REAF) respectively, who were honored for their commitment to the AIDS cause and the community of those impacted by HIV/AIDS throughout the Bay Area. The duo have successfully raised million dollars for AIDS related organizations in the region over the past decades.
It was also interesting to find out that although the 23 year old Grove assumes the same status as landmarks such as Mt. Rushmore and Pearl Harbor, it receives no federal funding, and is therefore completely self-sustaining. The Light in the Grove gala was therefore especially important in that it raised money for the operation and maintenance of the Grove, and its programs such as the Community Volunteer Workaday Program (the Grove now has had over 150,000 volunteers support them) their annual World AIDS Day National Observance and the Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship Program.
There are over 15,000 people living with AIDS in the Bay Area today. And while much has changed since the epidemic of the late 1900’s and progress has been made to finding more effective treatments and even a cure, there is still much to be done. The National AIDS Memorial Grove is a landmark like no other. It provides support and a community to those impacted by the disease and if fosters a sense of hope as well a sense of remembrance. This year’s gala emanated all of these feelings and ideals and even as an outsider who had never before interacted with the Grove, I could immediately feel the sense of community and love in the room. You won’t want to miss next year’s gala, it’s an unforgettable experience.