Thursday, April 16, 2009

AIDS grove hires executive director

Originally Published 4-16-09

by Matthew S. Bajko

he board of the National AIDS Memorial Grove has reinstated its executive director position after going without the top post since 2004. The move is aimed at kick starting a five-year-long focus on bolstering the group's endowment and financial resources.

John Cunningham, 48, formerly the development director at Positive Resource Center, started in the revived job April 1. He will receive an $80,000-a-year salary and oversee an estimated $2 million endowment.

At the same time, the board decided to lay off its operations manager, whose last day will be April 30, to make way for Cunningham. The board is transitioning to Cunningham the tasks of managing the endowment and overseeing fundraising.

"We can't afford to not do this. We needed to step it up a bit to boost the endowment and fulfill our responsibility for the memorial," said board co-chair Gina Gatta regarding the staff change. "We want to maintain our donors, keep AIDS in the forefront because it is not over, and protect our investment with the grove over the years."

Gatta estimated the endowment lost 20 percent of its value over the last year due to the faltering economy. But she added that it could have been worse.

"We are a very, very conservative organization," she said in terms of the board's investment strategy. "At the same time, our expenses have gone up. We see this as let's get an executive director in here and put our funding programs in place."

Out of the 75 applicants who applied for the job, Gatta said the board was most impressed with Cunningham due to his fundraising skills. In addition to his work the last three years with PRC, Cunningham served as board chairman of the New Hampshire AIDS Foundation for two years in the mid-1990s.

"We needed someone with development skills," said Gatta, an out lesbian who is publisher of the Damron gay and lesbian travel guides.

The grove has been a place of particular comfort for Cunningham, who has lived with HIV for 11 years and lost a partner, Tony Levesque, to AIDS in 2004.

"It is a place where, over time, I find great spiritual healing and solace," he said. "I believe strongly in the original vision of the grove and it being a place for healing, hope and remembrance."

He experienced firsthand the devastation wrought by AIDS. In the early 1980s Cunningham served as president of what was known as the Castro Community Business Alliance and owned a home in the heart of the gayborhood.

He now lives in Twin Peaks with his current partner, Joel Stevens, and has spent much time volunteering with the grove.

"I have done grove workdays for many years. I have also took part in memorial services there and several weddings," said Cunningham, who learned just days after taking on the grove job that a close friend was given mere months to live due to AIDS-related complications. "We began planning for his wishes after he passes, which include his desire for his service to be at the grove and for his name to be placed in the circle with those who have gone before him."

More attention

One of Cunningham's main goals is to bring greater national attention to the 7.5 acre living memorial to those lost to AIDS located within Golden Gate Park's de Laveaga Dell. He plans to invite President Obama to visit the grove during World AIDS Day, which takes place each year on December 1. It would mark the first presidential visit since the grove was established as a national memorial in 1996.

[Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, did attend the ceremony establishing the national recognition of the grove. But her husband, as well as President George W. Bush, never visited the site while in office.]

"The national AIDS memorial is not only, at times, the best kept secret in San Francisco, but also is a somewhat unknown entity on the national level," said Cunningham. "It is our hope that perhaps he or Michelle or another representative will join us to commemorate and to remember those who have gone before us, those who have helped along the way, and to remind those who remain of the importance and magnitude that AIDS has taken on in our communities."

For the last several years Cunningham has been involved with the AIDS Memorial Film Project. Filmmaker Michael Weiss is making a documentary, called Forget Me Not, about the AIDS grove, and is working closely with the grove's board on the project.

Cunningham sees the film as another way to expand the grove's scope and aid in his desire to reach out beyond the LGBT community to other groups, particularly minority communities, who have also been impacted by AIDS.

"Like any nonprofit, it is critical that an organization continue to remain relevant in the current time," said Cunningham. "The face of AIDS may have changed, and those who are affected may be different, and therefore it is critical that organizations such as the national AIDS memorial broaden access and awareness to all segments of our population."

The grove's operating budget for the fiscal year is set at $300,000. In addition to Cunningham, the grove pays $75,000 for a dedicated gardener, Ray Goodenough, who is an employee of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. The grove has a 99-year lease with the city, and depending on the year, spends between $10,000 and $20,000 annually for plants.

This month the grove is reviving a spring within its glen. The water feature has been dry since a drought in the 1990s.

"We have recently begun to place water back in what was called Dry Creek," said Cunningham.

It is the first major change within the grove since the board abandoned plans in December 2007 to move forward with a controversial design that called for constructing 90 blackened steel poles, a new entrance, and a sidewalk overlook. The board ultimately decided it was not feasible for it to raise the $6 million needed to complete the project.

The controversy has had a lasting effect, said Gatta.

"Some donors we lost that wanted the project to go ahead. A lot of longtime volunteers didn't want it to happen," she said. "It did take a lot of energy out of the board."

Gatta said since then the board determined to "regroup" and "get back to basics."

"We decided to get back to the foundation of what the grove was created for, so the next generation can go there and remember what this pandemic did to the world and our community," said Gatta, who plans to step down from the board after her term expires in 2010. "It is the most beautiful treasure in San Francisco. You just walk into the grove and the energy is there. It is such a gift we have and many people don't know about it."

Over the last several weeks, Cunningham has been reaching out to past donors and supporters of the grove. He said he is doing so in order to "reach out to those individuals and to learn directly from them what makes the grove such a special place."

He also has canceled the grove's Mad Hatter fundraiser, which usually occurs in the spring, and instead is planning an event to tie into this year's World AIDS Day.

The grove is hosting a fundraiser on June 11 with author Armistead Maupin to raise money to complete the film project, which is estimated to need $120,000.

In the meantime, volunteers are needed the third Saturday of each month (including this Saturday, April 18) to help tend to the grove. The work day begins at 8:30 a.m. and lunch is provided.

For directions and more information about the grove, visit its Web site at

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