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    A Love Letter to Shanti

    HIV was ravaging the community here in San Francisco and around the world, and when I got the results that decreed me infected back in 1988, I assumed, like all gay men, that I had little left of my life. I was frightened and unsure what I could do to fight this death sentence. I read an article that profiled a non-profit I knew nothing of, but this non-profit was training men and women to become providers of practical and emotional support to the many with promising futures who were dying so young.

    My motivation was fear that I’d die alone without a clue on how to face death with dignity and faith. I called Shanti the next day, and within a few days was going through an intake to qualify myself to be a volunteer working with men and women trying to make life easier for those going through the struggle with AIDS.

    At that time, Shanti offered several programs, in addition to the volunteer program. I quickly signed up to work in their activities program, which provided free tickets to theater performances, movies, clubs, concerts, and even some Giant’s games. It was fun, and I worked hard with many others to reach out and get blocks of tickets Shanti clients could use and enjoy. I also got to attend many events I couldn’t otherwise afford, being on disability. We were on the phone asking for tickets and giving them out for 8 or more hours every day, and it felt so good.

    I soon learned about Shanti’s transportation program, which took clients to medical and shopping appointments every day at no charge. At one time, there were as many as seven vans and mini buses picking up folks, getting them to their appointments and back home. I wound up being hired as a driver for a period of time as my health improved with the advent of the new life saving medicines. Shanti was truly about service. Complications back then included our clients’ need for anonymity because some communities were afraid to be around anyone diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, so our vehicles were unmarked and had black-out windows before they became popular.

    I was then ready for the volunteer training that took two weekends and at least another Friday night. I desperately wanted to know what people living and dying with this plague went through, so I found myself in training on a Friday night at Shanti when it was located on Market Street at Van Ness. There were a total of about 18 men and women taking that training. None of us knew one another, but by the time we ended our training, we were connected in an intimacy I’d only read about or seen in tear jerker movies.

    Charlie Garfield was there the night we all met and started this amazing journey. He told us how, as a psychologist working with individuals living with end stage cancer, he felt they deserved and needed practical and emotional support to go through the gut wrenching challenges of facing death. As a doctor, he could see only a small percentage of those in such great need. He created a training model, The Shanti Model, to train lay people to perform and provide this needed service.

    It was a huge success from its first day in 1974. In 1983, Charlie and many other medical providers started seeing patients with what they then called the ‘gay cancer.’ Many were soon dying abruptly of this devastating new disease. Charlie made a decision to open up Shanti to those being diagnosed with ‘GRID’ before we learned that it was really a horrible auto immune deficiency that came to be known as AIDS. By the end of 1982, Shanti Project was providing trained volunteers to hundreds of people diagnosed, and that number has grown to many thousands.

    In the almost four decades Shanti has existed, more than 20,000 men and women have taken the Shanti training. Most have served one or more clients needing support that comes from learning to speak “the language of love,” as we say at Shanti after all these wonderful, rewarding years.  During the later 1980’s, it is estimated that Charlie Garfield helped establish as many as 300 agencies using the Shanti Model of training ordinary (not really) men and women to walk through the end of life experience with many thousands of people who might otherwise die alone and afraid.

    I absolutely and unconditionally love Shanti. It changed my life in ways I could never have imagined. It’s allowed me to learn about love in ways I thought were reserved for only the holiest of men and women. It’s shown me the simple truth of just listening without judgment or insurmountable fear, and to allow people the dignity to be true to themselves rather than to standards that mean little as we end life as we think we know it.

    After about 20 years of service with Shanti as a program volunteer, driver, board member, and three great years as board chair, I was asked by the amazing Kaushik Roy- Shanti’s inspirational and dedicated Executive Director- if I would accept a new title the organization had never used before. It is Board Chair Emeritus. I accepted, because it will keep my heart close to, and ever more dedicated to, helping Shanti serve others who are in such great need. It also seems like a useful title when I ask people and organizations to support the work we do at Shanti every day.

    Stu Smith

    February 14, 2013, Valentine’s Day