A Night of Bliss With a Dreamgirl

Broadway legend Jennifer Holliday (right) will headline Bliss 2018, Maitri Compassionate Care’s annual gala and fundraiser auction on May 6 in San Francisco. Holliday, an original cast member of Dreamgirls, will be joined by comedian and actor Jason Stuart (Birth of a Nation), singer Frenchie Davis (American Idol), and musician Jonny Zywiciel.

For over three decades, since the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Maitri has provided residential hospice care to people living with HIV who are in need of hospice or 24-hour care. The name references a Sanskrit word meaning benevolence or “loving-kindness,” and that was something those dealing with AIDS-related illnesses sorely needed when Maitri first opened — at a time when there were no antiretroviral treatments and many still refused care to those sickened by the disease.

Believing no one should suffer or die alone, a Zen monk named Issan Dorsey opened the Hartford Street Zen Center to care for a student dying of AIDS complications, establishing the beginnings of Maitri. Within 10 years, Maitri had become a 15-bed facility with a home-like setting, designed to accommodate the special needs of people living with HIV.

In 2017, former executive director Michael Sorensen told Plus, HIV “is contracted within social circles and affects the heart, mind, and spirit of those infected and those affected. Early in the U.S. epidemic, those same circles responded with support as the virus did its deadly work. As the face of HIV [and] AIDS has changed, those debilitated by the disease are those with less resources, less access to care, and fewer factors that promote resiliency.”

In other words, Maitri still serves the most vulnerable in the community. But things have changed due to modern medical interventions — now its clients can “see a near death prognosis be reversed,” said Sorensen.

“Since opening in 1987, Maitri has been the final home for more than 1,600 people who lived with AIDS,” says Toni Newman, development manager for Maitri. “We maintain a waiting list of between 10 to 15 people at any given time. Fourteen of our 15 beds are reserved for HUD-defined low-income people and represent 90 percent of San Francisco’s non-institutional hospice beds.”

The San Francisco-based agency remains the only HIV-specific residential care facility in California focusing on the underserved community of those dying of, or severely debilitated by, AIDS complications. They serve as a model program and host health officials from around the world who come to learn how to care for the extremely ill.

In addition to raising money, this year’s Bliss will honor Bill Musick, a former executive director who returned as interim director after Sorenson left last year. Musick will be recognized for his 20 years of leadership and service, and Kirsten Havrehed will be honored for her nearly two-decades as a devoted Maitri volunteer.

In October, Musick was replaced by Anne Gimbel, the first woman to lead the residential care facility in its 31-year history. At the time Musick said, “I have truly cherished the opportunity to return to a second stint as Maitri’s executive director. With Anne’s leadership, the community can look forward to many more years of Maitri serving as a beacon of hope and nurture to those who otherwise might fall between the cracks of our health and social systems.”

Newman told Plus last year the facility’s only regret is that it can’t do more for its clients: “What we worry about most is what happens with our patients after they leave our care. Most of the funding goes to caring for our patients while they are here. We don’t have funds for aftercare. We don’t have enough funding for programs that make sure that our residents don’t go back to doing harmful things to their bodies. Sometimes we even have residents who come back.”

Last year, 77 percent of Maitri’s funding came from government support. The remainder came from grants, income from rent and program fees, and the support of individuals like those who attend the annual fundraiser.

In the future, Maitri hopes to expand its services and offer more counseling and the aftercare Newman dreams of. But, she says, this can only happen with additional funding — and donor generosity.

Bliss 2018 takes place May 6, and is presented by California Pacific Medical Center/Sutter Health. Hosting the event is professional auctioneer Dale Johannes, who will lead the charity auction. (MaitriSF.org)

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