As director of volunteer services at the AIDS Services Foundation in Costa Mesa, Randy Pesqueira always includes the same piece of advice for volunteers being trained for the foundation's "buddy program," an emotional-support network for AIDS patients.
"What I teach to volunteers is, your time with that client is the only time that matters--that old cliche of just enjoy it for the moment, just be there for that time," Pesqueira said. "A lot of times there is regret that they didn't know the person five years ago. It's like there is no future, and there really is no past. But the most important thing is happening right now and the whole effort is in being there for the person."
The buddy program is the heart of the AIDS Services Foundation, Pesqueira said. Over the past 26 months, the private, nonprofit foundation has served more than 320 people who either have AIDS or AIDS-related complex. Services include everything from helping patients obtain social service benefits to "providing 24-hour hospice care to the very end."
"It depends on the needs of the client," said Pesqueira, who is 31. "Some clients' needs are so large because they have nobody, nothing. So we try to supplement as much as we can."
In addition to offering a weekly support group for AIDS patients and stress reduction classes, the foundation leases a home in an undisclosed central Orange County neighborhood that can accommodate up to six homeless AIDS patients. Other services include a food bank and group counseling sessions for families, lovers and care-givers.
"Professionals are a little hesitant to unload, but it's a place to do that," Pesqueira said. "I guess, if anything, that's what's so special about ASF. There's a place to just dump their fears and educate themselves at the same time. I mean it (AIDS) is not a four-letter word. It's something to work at."
The foundation grew out of a small volunteer program that began in 1983 as an adjunct to the AIDS Response Program, a state-funded education-intervention project at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Garden Grove.
Pesqueira, who served as director of the AIDS Response Program, said the AIDS Services Foundation was formed "to really work on upgrading and making consistent those kinds of direct services. Working out of the center, it was kind of hit and miss a lot of times. With the foundation we could concentrate on direct services and benefits counseling. And there was the reality that we could raise funds more seriously if we were a separate entity."
The foundation began with a budget of $120,000 a year and a staff of two--Pesqueira as administrator and a part-time assistant. It now operates on a $550,000 annual budget (with the exception of a state grant, most of its money comes from private donations) and a staff of five that includes the foundation's first executive director, Parrie Graham.
There are also about 120 volunteers--both gay and straight--who work in the foundation office and serve as therapists, drivers and hospital visitation team members. About 55 of the volunteers work in the buddy program, doing everything from shopping and driving to cooking and running errands for AIDS patients.
Pesqueira, who earned a bachelor's degree in human services from Cal State Fullerton in 1982, said he feels a sense of satisfaction in knowing he's doing something to help. Of the 602 AIDS cases reported in the county since 1980, 359 patients have died, according to a public health official.
"It's just a tremendous lesson on the value of living life and what it's all about," Pesqueira said, "and (learning) that death is a very natural part of existence. It's scary, but it's a given."
Pesqueira said he is writing a paper on "how gay men have changed the face of death" for the second international Gay and Lesbian Health Conference to be held in Boston in the spring.
"It's ironic, but I think we've more or less brought death out of the closet in the '80s," he said.
Since the foundation began, 97 of the AIDS patients it has served have died. Pesqueira said the majority of them had become good friends.
"Oh, God, yeah," he said. "This summer was really hard because I lost two friends I had known a long time, who were supposed to, like, beat this. I join in sometimes in the denial just as much as that person. The reality is that this person has a life-threatening illness that nobody has really survived, that we know of. And yet there is part of me still that says this person is going to make it."
Pesqueira said he is asked constantly how he can deal with all that loss.
"Learning to take care of myself is a big lesson in all of this, learning my limitations," he said. "I think one of the big issues in this whole field--AIDS projects everywhere--is staff taking care of themselves. And it's a real delicate balance of getting involved (with a patient) to a certain point and then pulling out, or being able to set limits with yourself: How much are you going to get involved with each case?"
After four years of working with AIDS patients, Pesqueira said he believes he needs to take time out to reassess his life. He is thinking of going to graduate school and earning a master's degree in fine arts. But Pesqueira doesn't plan to abandon his activist role.
"Oh, yeah, I'll always be an activist," he said. "Four years ago at the Gay Center, I began to explore that, sort of being a gay activist, then an AIDS activist. It's like there's a war going on and it's my duty."