Spirited Journey

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A Death In The Family Propelled Source Events’ Craig Smith To Change His Life’s Course By Creating Family For Others
by Dann Dulin

Craig Smith. Photo courtesy Craig Smith

Breakfast on the Danube, lunch in Cape Town, or dinner near Machu Picchu—welcome to the adventurous world of Craig Smith, philanthropist and human rights activist.

On this day, Craig is anchored on the Adriatic Sea, lunching on the deck of the commercial yacht, The Wind Surf. Nearly 300 guests are aboard this tenth anniversary Rome-to-Venice cruise crafted by Source Events, for which Craig is founder. The ports include Capri, Italy; Taormina, Sicily; Kotor, Montenegro; Dubrovnik, Croatia; and Hvar, Croatia. Source Events is a small travel and event company that was created for gay travelers to provide them with a family atmosphere on each trip. (Craig likes to keep it intimate so trips consist of 150 to 300 guests.)

“I wanted to create events and experiences which helped people connect with their own spiritual source,” says Craig, a Miami resident, “as well as connecting with nature and each other.” Indeed, we dine with a panoramic view of the Dalmatian Coast where the dazzling sunlit waters blindingly shimmer in the ancient harbor of Dubrovnik.

Craig’s philosophy emerged from the impact the epidemic had on him, touching him in an extremely unique way.

His mother, Ann Smith, was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1988, during the thick of the disease and before there was any effective treatment. “I learned that my mother had AIDS when I was visiting her in Los Angeles. I never would have imagined my mother contracting HIV, and the news was devastating. At the time my mother was diagnosed, I only knew gay men with AIDS. I was so angry that this disease had affected my mother.” Craig looks off momentarily. “My mom was always so loving and supportive of me and the gay community. Most of her friends were gay men, and she told me that she felt the most loved and accepted by her gay friends.”

When the first treatment for HIV was available, the controversial drug AZT, Ann took it. But it didn’t help. “It was not very effective, especially with women,” he points out. “At that time, they knew less about how the disease affected women. Ann was losing weight rapidly and the doctors said there was nothing they could do. Ultimately it was the wasting syndrome that took her life.” He leans in, puts his elbow on the table and grasps his chin. “Fortunately, I moved back to L.A. to be with her the last two years of her life….” In 1991, at the age of fifty-one, his mother died.

The Wind Star anchors in Dubrovnik Harbor. Photo courtesy WindStar Cruises

When speaking about his mother, Craig is matter-of-fact. However, beneath the veneer, Ann’s death has left an indelible void and an eternal scar. He adds an insightful perspective, “My mother’s illness helped me realize that HIV is just a virus and there should be no stigma or shame associated with the disease. Sharing my mother’s illness with friends, family, and co-workers did a lot to raise people’s awareness that HIV was not just a gay disease.”

Zuma, our vivacious waiter, quietly interrupts and pours Craig more Prosecco, an Italian white wine, then departs. Craig goes on. “I’m so grateful for all the gifts my mom gave me, especially for her unconditional love and for her faith in me. She always encouraged me to follow my dreams, and I know she would love the experiences we are creating,” he expresses with an earnest grin. “While I miss her physical presence, I often feel her loving spirit with me, especially on our adventures and cruises.”

Motivated by Ann’s death and the death of many friends, Craig spun his sorrow into an upbeat life of activism and advocacy. After graduating from Tulane Law School in New Orleans (it was while he was a student here that the epidemic broke), Craig worked as Deputy District Attorney in his hometown of Los Angeles during Ann’s illness. After her death, he moved to San Francisco and became managing partner of Smith, Sawl & Associates. It was while living in the Golden Gate City that Craig traded his law bar for handle bars and joined over 1,000 other bicyclists for the second California AIDSRide (in 1995), pedaling from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He then rode in two more: the Hawaii AIDS Paradise Ride in 2004 and the AIDS/LifeCycle in 2008, once again riding parallel to the ahhh-jaw-dropping Pacific coastline from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Yoga on deck. Photo by Davidd Batalon

“All the AIDS rides, and particularly the first one, were life-changing for me on a physical, mental, and spiritual level,” notes Craig with sincere conviction. “Participating in the AIDS ride was a way to channel my anger and frustration about AIDS into something incredibly positive. I got in the best condition of my life, met new friends, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was part of an incredible community who were changing the world by raising funds and awareness about HIV/AIDS.” (When asked who his heroes are in the pandemic, without hesitation he replies, “Riders of the AIDS rides.”) We’re distracted for a moment by one of the ship-to-shore tenders moving swiftly on the water in our periphery. “I have enrolled many friends and family members in the AIDS rides, and always recommend them to anyone who’s interested in changing their life and making a difference in the fight against AIDS.”

Craig made a difference. In the late nineties, he headed southeast to Florida and continued to reach out. As Director of Events at the Dade Human Rights Foundation he produced several Winter Party events—a fundraiser dedicated to fighting AIDS—that bestowed grants to various local AIDS organizations. Through the years Craig has been involved with many AIDS organizations including South Beach AIDS Project, AIDS Project Los Angeles, Maui AIDS Foundation, and Care Resource.

He founded Communion Foundation, which springboarded fundraising events for Body Positive, an HIV/AIDS full resource Web site. Though Communion closed a few years ago, it raised over $100,000 for AIDS and LGBT causes. “We mostly had intimate house parties and they helped foster a sense of community,” he boasts proudly, excusing himself briefly to return to the Veranda restaurant’s lavish buffet.

Community is critical for Craig, having lost his mother at such a young age. He has sought to create a new family and revels in providing it for others as well. This was a major impetus for his founding Source Events.

On this trip, Craig’s Source Events “family” includes a bodyworker, a life coach, health professionals, and an award-winning yoga instructor. I took a yoga class yesterday that was held at the stern of the ship. Being on deck with the infinite tranquil blue waters and the billowy luminous clouds above were a welcomed primer. It was a glorious added effect to meld with the rippling white-capped waves that emanated from the ship as we did the sun salutation pose, lead by instructor Nick Pratley who was supportive and challenging. Each trip may not include these specific professionals, but each trip does provide similar wellness programs.

Rafael "Rafi" Rodriguez and Craig. Photo by Davidd Batalon

An integral part of Craig’s family is Rafael Rodriguez, known as “Rafi.” On this round-the-boot-of-Italy tour the couple are celebrating their fifteenth year together. Rafi is Director of Operations at Source Events. “We met on Fire Island in 1996 during Morning Party week, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’s fundraiser,” asserts Craig with a slight nostalgic gush. At one point Craig offers that they both test for HIV as part of their annual physicals, which sparks off a conversation on the resurgence of HIV, especially among the youth.

“The best way to reach people is to visit them in the world they live in. Twenty-five years ago bars were the best place for outreach. Today, I would say that the Internet, especially social media like Facebook and Twitter is the key to educating our youth and raising awareness,” he advises keenly. “I think our community agencies can also do a better job of outreach and educating our youth, which is the key to prevention.” Finishing up his meal, Craig slightly pulls away from the table, shifting in the wicker chair, then adds, “I’m hopeful that there will be a cure and a vaccine for AIDS in our lifetime, so we can close the final chapter on AIDS.”

Craig’s gentle, commanding presence compliments his overall handsome muscular appearance. He’s a man’s man. Unquestionably, the epidemic radically altered his life, as it has so many others. However, not everyone chooses to spin a positive out of a negative situation. Craig certainly lives up to Michael Jordan’s philosophy: “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

Having had the opportunity to talk to quite a few passengers, some of whom have been on many of their trips, including the maiden voyage ten years ago, I discover that many of the gents consider Craig a role model. No surprise. As an exemplar, who does Craig look up to? “There are so many people in my life who are sources of inspiration. I always look up to people who are living their dreams and following their heart,” he steadfastly explains, a belief his mother was akin to also. “I do look up to Nelson Mandela, who’s been a leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and whose stories of courage and forgiveness saved a nation. I heard him speak at an AIDS fundraising concert in Cape Town (one of Craig’s favorite cities), and his presence and words were so moving and inspiring.”

Craig needs to depart and prep for tonight’s activity—another fundraiser. This time it’s for British rugby player Ben Cohen’s StandUp Foundation, an organization that combats homophobia and bullying. Ben will personally introduce the auction. (The auction raised over $20,000 and several passengers committed to hosting fundraisers in the U.S. Ben’s used rugby shirt sold for $2,000.) Over a ten-year period, Source Events has made numerous donations to AIDS organizations in the United States and in Africa, and they often give donations of travel to help AIDS organizations too.

“We Are Family,” the Sister Sledge song, certainly could be Craig Smith’s anthem. But what truly motivates him to continually give of himself? Standing, with cabin key card in hand, he replies, darting his friendly yet intense azure eyes, “I believe we’re all here to make a difference and to share our unique gifts….” He halts to acknowledge some passers-by then concludes. “I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to give back to our community and I’ve found that giving is the best way to continue to grow and develop personally.”

With an embrace, he’s off yet again on another adventure. And if what Craig says is true about giving, he indeed has found the passport to higher ground.

Climb aboard for more with Craig at: www.sourceevents.com.

Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.

february 2012