Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

National AIDS Memorial Grove marks 25 years


AIDS grove co-founder Alice Russell-Shapiro speaks to attendees at the grove's 25th anniversary event, with fellow co-founder Isabel Wade. Jack Porter, who also attended, was another co-founder of the National AIDS Memorial in Golden Gate Park. Photo: Khaled Sayed
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Over 200 volunteers, community leaders, and others gathered to commemorate 25 years of remembrance and pay tribute to friends and loved ones lost to HIV/AIDS at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park Saturday, September 17.

"The National AIDS Memorial is in many ways the heart of the sanctuary that is the grove. As we all know, many people in San Francisco see the grove as their spiritual place, not only out of despair or loss, but as a place of hope and remembrance," AIDS grove Executive Director John Cunningham said.

The National AIDS Memorial, known as the grove, was created 25 years ago in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It is a dedicated space in the national landscape where millions of Americans touched directly or indirectly by AIDS can gather to heal, hope, and remember.

Since 1991, nearly 25,000 volunteers have donated more than 150,000 hours participating in monthly community volunteer workdays and other events to support the grove.

The grove's Circle of Friends memorial space was originally conceived about four years into the creation of the grove as a way for individuals to both remember those lost as well as those who have also survived the AIDS epidemic.

"The spirit of the grove and the heart of the grove is truly within the Circle of Friends," Cunningham said. "There are approximately 3,000 names currently engraved there. This year it will reach its capacity."

In 1996, legislation sponsored by Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was signed into law by President Bill Clinton that elevated the grove as the country's sole federally designated National AIDS Memorial.

Alice Russell-Shapiro, Isabel Wade, and Jack Porter, original grove supporters and founders, came to commemorate what they helped create two and a half decades ago.

According to Porter, who referred to himself jokingly as "the volunteer who didn't know when to go home," he has been a volunteer with the group since it started.

Porter was 44 and living in Cupertino when he met his late partner, who died from AIDS-related complications, as did many other gay men at the time. Afterward, he got together with a group of friends. They wanted to start something or create some kind of sanctuary or a grove in the city to remember all those they lost to AIDS during the 1990s.

Russell-Shapiro said that no one knew in 1991 what the future held for AIDS and how many people would die from the disease. Widespread treatments were not yet available.

Russell-Shapiro believed that people in the late 1980s needed a place where they could come and morn in solidarity with others who were grieving.

"Speaking of the Bay Area Reporter , every week there were perhaps dozens of names – into the early 1990s – obituaries of people who had died from AIDS," Russell-Shapiro said. "There was no place for people whose lives were touched by AIDS. We didn't like to say AIDS victims, including those who had died or were dying."

Speaking at the event, gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) remembered 25 years ago that the public body that represents the citizens of San Francisco recognized the need, not only for its citizens, but also its own individual need.

"The need to heal an absolutely broken heart of this amazing city," Leno said. "In the early 1990s, as many of us here remember it all too well, there was sense of hopelessness and despair and deep need to join together, a search for healing, and thus was born the AIDS Memorial Grove. The civic leadership of the city of San Francisco moved by compassionate courage stepped forward to meet the need of their grieving citizens and designate nearly 10 acres of Golden Gate Park to be used as a space to remember and to heal."

Eric Shifler had friends who died from AIDS that he still misses.

"It is nice to come up here and remember them," he said. "I came several years ago and I saw my name here. I didn't understand why. A friend of mine said that the AIDS Memorial Grove is also for people who were diagnosed with HIV or affected by AIDS in some way or worked in the field."

Shifler volunteered with the Shanti Project in 1983 and went on staff at Shanti in 1985 as the executive secretary to the board of directors. He left Shanti in 1995 after working there for 10 years. Shifler retired in 2016.

He said that when he walks in the Castro now it feels and seems so different.

"There should be people my age, and there are not many of us left," Shifler, 67, said. "I miss this whole generation. But the city did wonderfully. We set an example for the world and this is part of it. And that is why I come to the grove often."

Every third Saturday from March to October, more than 125 volunteers, ranging from the very young to the elderly, come together to help maintain the grove, clearing overgrowth, reintroducing native species, and planting new trees, plants and shrubs.

Mike Shriver, the AIDS grove board chair, attended the memorial along with Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department; Christine Pelosi, the representative's daughter and a former AIDS grove member and longtime supporter. The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus performed a few songs at the event.


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