Maitri Commemorates Its 30th Anniversary with a Star-Studded Gala & Auction
by Hank Trout
Photos by Jim Norrena/California College of the Arts
On Sunday, May 7, Maitri Compassionate Care will commemorate its thirtieth anniversary with Bliss 2017, a celebratory gala and auction at the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio in San Francisco. Bliss is Maitri’s signature annual gala and fundraiser. This year’s gala, with host/emcee Marga Gomez, promises to be a memorable one indeed. The variety gala will feature performances by jazz musicians Jonathan Bautista and Justin Rock, the acclaimed ManDance Company, the Lesbian & Gay Chorus of San Francisco, and classically trained vocalist Lawrence Beamen, in addition to the inimitable comedy of host/MC Gomez.
Pronounced “MY-tree”, a Sanskrit word meaning “compassionate friendship,” Maitri is the only AIDS-specific residential care facility in California focused on the underserved community of those dying of or severely debilitated by AIDS. The seeds of Maitri were first planted in 1987 when Zen teacher Issan (“Tommy”) Dorsey of the Hartford Street Zen Center took in a homeless student dying of AIDS. Dorsey’s act of generosity soon led to the formation of Maitri, a model eight-bed hospice for end-of-life hospice care for members of the community ravaged by AIDS, located in the Castro, ground zero of the epidemic in San Francisco. Issan himself died at Maitri of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1990. As Maitri’s website puts it, “From drug-addled drag queen to Zen master, Issan’s life reflected his innate ability to ‘charm people senseless.’” He cultivated a group of followers devoted to dealing with whatever came to the door. “We started the hospice,” their website continues, “because death came to the door.”
Beginning in 1996, with the advent of the first successful combination of antiretroviral medications, the needs of the community changed. By enabling AIDS patients to live longer, the new medications reduced the number of patients needing end-of-life care but increased the number of patients living with severe debilitations and needing intensive, 24-hour nursing care—care that is dignified, non-judgmental, unconditional. In response, Maitri doubled its capacity and extended care to non-hospice patients debilitated by AIDS. As part of the expansion of services, Maitri relocated to a state-licensed, custom-designed facility on Duboce Avenue, still in the Castro, in late 1997.
“The folks we serve need us more than I can elaborate,” said newly appointed executive director Michael Sorensen. Sorensen, with a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government, comes to Maitri from the National University of Medicine in Portland, Oregon, where he oversaw the business and community affairs of its twenty academic health centers, which offer integrative primary care and classical Chinese medicine. Reflecting Maitri’s mission statement—“No one should have to suffer or die alone”—Sorensen went on to say, “Maitri serves the most vulnerable, the least resourced, and does this with the greatest care and greatest respect, believing all are worthy.”
When I asked Sorensen what drew him to Maitri and what he hopes to contribute, he elaborated, “I am attracted to the work at Maitri for the opportunity to make the last days for some imperfectly peaceful and to see a near-death prognosis be reversed. I like to think I bring a commitment to the mission, hope for a cure, a voice for those in our care, and a commitment to raise the funds needed to continue the legacy of high quality care and compassion that Maitri is known for.”
One of Sorensen’s responsibilities is fundraising. Maitri is funded through contracts with the government (sixty-five percent of funds); earned income from offering one of its resident rooms (as available) for non-AIDS hospice applicants on a private-pay basis (ten percent); and gifts from the community (twenty-five percent). Maitri has enjoyed a twenty-year community partnership with the Academy of Friends as one of the beneficiaries of the Friends’ Academy Awards Night Charity Gala. The Academy of Friends has donated a total of more than $209,000 since 1997 to Maitri (not counting the amount raised on Oscar night this year, unavailable at press time). This year’s Bliss event is expected to raise nearly $300,000 and to open doors to new friends to Maitri.
Marga Gomez, one of the first openly lesbian comedians in the business, will host and MC Bliss 2017. Once described by Robin Williams as “amazing… a lesbian Lenny Bruce,” Gomez is a San Francisco local who shares comedic roots with Lea DeLaria [A&U, November 1999], Karen Ripley, and others who pretty much invented gay comedy in San Francisco’s comedy clubs in the 1980s and ’90s. She tours nationally with her stand-up shows and has starred in comedy specials on LOGO, HBO, Showtime, and Comedy Central. Her one-woman plays have garnered praise from The New York Times (“Hilariously skewed”), the San Francisco Chronicle (“Salaciously surreal”), and the Village Voice (“Charmingly raunchy!”). As Michael Musto put it, “Gomez delivers!”
Ms. Gomez’s connection with Maitri began in 2000 when her mentor, Donald Montwill, a major influence in the LGBT performance scene in San Francisco in the ’80s and ’90s with his stewardship of Josie’s Cabaret and The Valencia Rose, was a resident. “I got to meet his Maitri family of residents and caregivers,” Ms. Gomez told me. “Even in the late stages of his illness, everyone at Maitri recognized his humor and power. That meant the world to all of us who visited. I have performed at the Maitri residence in the past, and it is with gratitude that I am hosting this upcoming gala for an organization that deserves all our support.”
Among the other entertainment for the Bliss 2017 gala, ManDance Company bills itself as “America’s Premiere LGBTQ Dance Company.” Founded in San Francisco in 2008, the all-male MDC showcases professional dancers who express their athleticism, sexuality, and compassion free of restraint, focusing on LGBT-related issues. Their performances often feature guest stars and apprentices. Vocalist Lawrence Beamen is a veteran of NBC’S hit TV show America’s Got Talent; his rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” showcasing his baritone voice, placed him in the top-five contestants. Justin Rock is a composer, guitarist, and vocalist with various Bay Area jazz bands; Jonathan Bautista is a jazz saxophonist familiar to Bay Area jazz festival goers. Finally, the Lesbian & Gay Chorus of San Francisco, founded in 1980 and the first choral organization to use both “lesbian” and “gay” in its name, has performed all over the country with great success.
Even if you cannot attend Bliss 2017 on May 7, you can still help to ensure that Maitri continues to provide world-recognized model care to AIDS patients. Maitri is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, meaning that your donations are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. Less than twenty percent of Maitri’s annual operating budget is ear-marked for administrative and fundraising expenses, so the bulk of your gift goes directly toward providing compassionate care for residents. Donations large and small are helpful.
If you would prefer to assist Maitri in a more hands-on way, volunteers are always welcome. Volunteers provide practical and emotional support to Maitri’s residents, assist by the bedside, help with household chores, and perform various administrative and development functions. If you are interested in the next volunteer training session, you can download the Maitri Volunteer Application from their website (see below). The facility offers three volunteer training sessions per year. The sessions typically begin on a Friday evening and continue all day Saturday and Sunday. No prior health care or volunteer experience is necessary to join Maitri’s volunteer team. There are also many special event opportunities at which volunteers can donate time and energy, such as Dinner at Maitri, the annual Holiday Open House, the annual Academy of Friends Oscar Gala, the Folsom Street Fair and of course the annual Bliss gala.
The folks at Maitri Compassionate Care provide the kind of care that each of us would like to receive at the end of our lives, cultivating the deepest respect and love for life among its residents and caregivers. You can help ensure their continued success by attending Bliss 2017, the 30th Anniversary Gala and Auction on Sunday, May 7.
For information on tickets, volunteering for the event, and other ways to support Maitri Compassionate Care’s services, visit: www.maitrisf.org. More information about Marga Gomez can be found on her website, www.margagomez.com.
Hank Troutvvv interviewed Phoenix-based advocate Peter Rodriguez for the March issue.