Volunteering at the National AIDS Memorial Grove

Redwoods are inherently contemplative, bringing new perspective on an epidemic that is passing into history.

“This was a swamp,” says Carlin Holden, a longtime volunteer and board member with the National AIDS Memorial Grove. “There was a pile of brush in the meadow taller than a person.”

It’s simultaneously easy and hard to imagine this site looking derelict — easy because it’s a natural basin and hard because it’s currently so well-maintained. But in the 1980s, after years of budget cuts, a section of Golden Gate Park that was known as De Laveaga Dell was in sorry shape, its Victorian water fountains having been inoperative for almost 50 years.

Today, it’s as close to a sacred space as a political jurisdiction can constitutionally allow.

Every third Saturday during the dry months, volunteers gather to spruce up the Grove, spreading decorative gravel or clearing mulch. One section has been planted with redwoods, and as people who live in western Sonoma know, redwoods are a lot of work. They shed profusely, for one. But the dust their bark produces endows any shafts of sunlight that penetrate the canopy with a mystical quality. A redwood forest is inherently contemplative — and when you see boulders etched with the names of people lost to the AIDS crisis, you may stop yourself, rake in hand. As with panels of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, that sorrow is profound.

“The Grove was created 27 years ago, in the heart of the darkest days of the epidemic, when 15,000 San Franciscans had passed,” says John Cunningham, the nonprofit’s executive director. “It goes to the heart of the matter that the city gave 10-and-a-half acres of Golden Gate Park to a yet-to-be-formed organization.”

Through the support of well-connected, socially progressive San Francisco families, the Grove quickly came into being — and within six months, 50 dump trucks full of debris had been removed. The De Laveaga family gave its blessing since they, too, had lost someone to AIDS.

Where we’re sitting had been under four feet of water, Cunningham adds, but a quarter-million cumulative volunteer-hours can do a lot. It’s 27 years to the day, in fact, since then-Mayor Art Agnos put a shovel in the ground and planted what is now a very tall redwood.

“Through volunteer engagement, it’s been transformed,” Cunningham says of the site. “The power of the healing that takes place on either side of the shovel — not only do they come here and transform the landscape, they transformed each other’s lives by connecting in that way.”

Having been conceived as a mere ginkgo garden, the Grove quickly grew in ambition. As of last year, a semicircular installation acknowledges the plight of hemophiliacs, a group whose suffering is often overlooked. A scholarship program named for Real World star Pedro Zamora disbursed $60,000 this year alone. Knowing that a day will come when the last person dies of AIDS complications, the organization is looking to build an “Interpretive Center for Social Conscience” to keep the flame alive. Separately, an oral history project has drawn attention to various subgroups devastated by HIV: leathermen, hemophiliacs, women, and now the Asian and Pacific Islander community.

The Grove doesn’t accept public money, and it reimburses the city for the salary and benefits of its full-time gardener. Further, in 1996, Rep. Nancy Pelosi got legislation passed that enshrines the Grove as the U.S.’s only memorial site dedicated to the HIV/AIDS crisis. It doesn’t accept federal money, either, but it’s now technically part of the Department of the Interior — and no other site can claim its designation. It’s also the only place in San Francisco where it’s legal to deposit urns or spread ashes — and while the nonprofit doesn’t track how many people have been memorialized in that manner, the Grove’s leadership will avail mourners of a tree. Ruth Brinker, the founder of Project Open Hand, has a rhododendron planted in her memory.

“It’s the final resting place for hundreds of people,” Cunningham says. “Out of death comes life. You will find, at different times of year, there are trees that people come to and do little things.”

Gardeners in Rec and Park’s employ can’t speak to the press — and a brusque bureaucrat who happens to be present is more than eager to play the role of enforcer. But people who’ve worked with the gardeners over the years are happy to share details about the trenches they’ve dug, or the wizened California bay trees that have probably been there since the 19th century. (They’re vectors for the spread of sudden oak death, but their astringent aroma is lovely.)

Even a couple of hours of manual labor, multiplied by almost 100 volunteers, creates dramatic change. The Gaymers are here in force — they come every month, apparently — as are members of an older set who call themselves The Stud Muffins. People who didn’t know each other before have become like family, says Holden, the board member.

After a small ceremony at the Circle of Friends in which we hold hands and recite the names of people who were lost, it’s time for empanadas. Usually, volunteers are fed sandwiches, but September’s workday is the annual volunteer-appreciation day, so people linger. They share stories about long-time volunteers who aren’t there that day, including one guy who comes from Chicago to help. He retired from the airlines, so he flies for free, I’m told. Back when they had to rip up stumps of trees that had been cut down, it was an all-day project for strong backs — and its sounds almost like an Amish barn-raising. One gentleman comes up to Holden to get her to sign a card for another woman who’s had a triple bypass. She’s making a quick recovery, but they still want her to know that they’re thinking of her.

Read more from SF Weekly‘s Golden Gate Park issue:

Golden Gate Park: You Can Lead a Horticulture
A wilderness transformed into lungs for the 19th-century San Francisco.

Frog Invasion!
Keeping certain species out of Golden Gate Park is a decades-old battle.

Sharon Meadow Has Been Renamed Robin Williams Meadow
Comics and goodnatured city dignitaries gathered in Golden Gate Park on Friday to mutilate some Robin Williams jokes in honor of the late comedian.

Golden Gate Dog Park Renovation Will Separate Large Dogs From Small
How do we break it to dogs that the $2.4 million upgrade to their park-within-a-park isn’t coming for another year?

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