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    The Richmond/Ermet Aid Foundation Commemorates 25 Years of Supporting the Community

    Twenty-five years ago, two mothers who each suffered through losing their only sons to AIDS decided to take action and to do something positive with their grief.

    Barbara Richmond and Peggy Emet Photos Courtesy of REAF

    Barbara Richmond and Peggy Ermet were lifelong friends whose mothers were friends before they were born. The lives of these women, both native San Franciscans, had intertwined many times over the years both as children growing up together and later as married couples who socialized and had children.

    Peggy eventually moved with her husband to Sacramento, where she raised her only son, Doug. Barbara remained in San Francisco and eventually divorced her husband, raising her two small children, John and Jeannie, on her own. Throughout this time, the two women remained good friends, visiting whenever the opportunities arose.

    Peggy’s son Doug grew up to become an Emmy Award-winning television writer and producer, while Barbara’s son John nurtured his artistic side as a set designer, costume designer, interior decorator and supporter of the local theater community. Barbara’s daughter Jeannie married, had a son of her own and moved to Woodside to be with her family.

    Doug Emet

    When Peggy’s husband died, she decided that she wanted to be closer to her son, who was by then living in San Francisco and working at Macy’s in charge of Employee Communications. This move gave the two lifelong friends a chance to reunite; they decided to move in together and share an apartment. By then, both of their sons had been diagnosed with HIV.

    How a Benefit Was Born

    Shortly after the moms moved in together, Barbara’s son John became very sick and Peggy became her primary support as she watched her son—and many of his friends—die. Following John’s death in 1990, Barbara and many of John’s performer friends decided to put on a benefit to raise funds for Coming Home Hospice, the agency that provided home care for John when he passed. The event was called “Close to Home,” and nearly the entire local theater and cabaret community turned out to perform and support it.

    Four years later, when Peggy’s son Doug also became very ill, Barbara became Peggy’s support system along with Doug’s close friend Joe Seiler, whom Doug had met working at Macy’s, and his partner Ken Henderson. After Doug’s death in 1994, the two moms called Joe and Ken and said they wanted to put on another benefit to honor Peggy’s son, as they had done for John, and asked if they would help. The answer was an immediate, “Yes!”

    Joe was a former singer and performer in New York before moving to San Francisco and had worked on previous benefit shows. Ken, in turn, had worked with many HIV/AIDS organizations as a graphic designer. He gained a sense of how the nonprofits fundraised through event production so, combining these skills and interest, Ken and Joe took on helming their first benefit, “Help is on the Way: San Francisco Cares,” at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater on Mother’s Day in 1995.

    Inspiration from Nancy LaMott

    Nancy Lamont

    This first event featured the stars of the long-running hit Broadway show The Phantom of the Opera (Lisa Vroman and Franc D’Ambrosio), stars from “Beach Blanket Babylon,” dancers from San Francisco Ballet, an ensemble from the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and other prominent cabaret stars. This first benefit also featured one of Doug’s long-time friends, Nancy LaMott, who had been living in New York and was on a steady rise towards stardom, having performed at the White House several times and gaining great popularity in the cabaret world.

    The song “Help is on the Way’ was written for Nancy by singer/songwriter David Friedman and was also one of Doug’s favorite songs. What Nancy didn’t tell Joe and Ken when she came to perform in this first benefit was that she had been diagnosed with uterine cancer a few months earlier. While Nancy was here for the benefit, she attended a performance of Angels in America, met the man playing Roy Cohen, fell in love and, six months later, married him on her deathbed.

    Nancy passed in late November of 1995. However, all of this led Barbara and Peggy, with their friends Ken and Joe, to continue to try and raise funds to provide support for local HIV/AIDS services. Barbara once said, “I can’t take care of any more dying boys, but this is something I can do. I don’t have much money to donate myself, but I can help raise money for those agencies who do take of these boys.” 

    So, the Richmond/Ermet Fund, operating under the umbrella of California Pacific Medical Center, incorporated and became an official 501 (c)(3) agency and the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation producing one of San Francisco’s largest annual benefit concert and galas, “Help is on the Way,” as an all-volunteer agency. 

    Expanding REAF’s Programs

    In 1999, REAF decided it was time to expand their programing and produce a similar holiday-themed benefit show that they named “Help is on the Way for the Holidays,” which also gained great popularity. They began to work with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS in New York to produce a series of special “One Night Only” benefit cabaret performances with touring Broadway Casts. These shows also became very popular and are now planned throughout the year as tours are announced and as schedules permit.

    Since their first show in early 2000, REAF has worked with over 60 touring Broadway shows to present this series of performances. However, sadly, 2000 was also the year that Peggy passed, which devastated Barbara once again. Barbara and Peggy had become quite the pair, always at each other’s side and always serving as each other’s primary support. Barbara once reflected, “We’re not lesbians, but I guess we really are domestic partners.” But Barbara, Ken and Joe, along with a dedicated team of board and, committee members, continued to fundraise and produce events.

    In ensuing years, REAF produced many other benefits including “Dances from the Heart” for two years featuring many top Bay Area modern and ballet dance companies, a Valentine’s themed concert called “All You Need is Love” for two years, “Divas & Dames,” “Comedy Kabaret” (combining stand-up and musical comedy acts), “My Big Gay Comedy Show,” and more recently, “Donna Sachet’s Big Gay Comedy Extravaganza.”

    REAF also benefited from other events such as “Dancing with the Dragstars,” produced by REAF board member Patrik Gallineaux, and from many Kimpton Pride Parties as well as Celebrity Cruises’ “Soirée on the Bay” last year. The latter event will take place again in November of this year. To date, REAF has provided well over $3 million to 34 different direct service agencies.

    REAF’s Help is On The Way benefits conclude with a finale moment when cast members gather on stage. The finale of Help Is on the Way XXII in 2016, held at the Herbst Theatre, featured stars, including Carole Cook, Sally Struthers, Paula West, Michael Walters as Dame Edna and more.

    Meeting Fundraising Challenges

    In REAF’s early years, getting funding through sponsorships was relatively easy. Companies were losing valued employees to the epidemic and individuals were losing family members and loved ones. Almost no one in the Bay Area had been untouched by the AIDS epidemic. However, with advances in treatment and people now living with the disease, combined with the events of 9/11 and numerous natural disasters around the world, funding was becoming increasingly more difficult. Giving priorities for many corporations were changing, and HIV/AIDS was becoming more and more difficult to find funding for.

    REAF was fortunate to have several companies that had continued to support them over the years including Charles Schwab and Co, which was REAF’s very first sponsor and helped to make their first event possible; and Wells Fargo, which has provided funding every year since REAF’s second year. 

    As other funding continued to decrease, though, REAF faced a decision, with Ken, Joe and their team asking themselves: Do we do what so many other agencies are doing and close our doors, or do we expand what we support to include other causes and, if so, what causes? Where could our support also have an impact on the local community? 

    Ken told the San Francisco Bay Times, “The answers were clear when we met to discuss our options. What do we see everywhere we go in the Bay Area? Homelessness and hunger. So, in 2015, REAF redefined our mission ‘to provide aid for HIV, hunger and homeless youth programs’ and to select beneficiaries for each major event to support those causes.”

    He added, “This year we are proud to support Meals on Wheels San Francisco and Raphael House for our summer ‘Help is on the Way XXV: Celebrating Broadway’ gala on August 18 at the Herbst Theater and Project Open Hand and AGUILAS for our ‘Help is on the Way for the Holidays XVIII’ gala on December 9 at the Marines’ Memorial Theater.”

    REAF’s 25th Anniversary Gala

    REAF will be presenting their Silver Anniversary Gala, “Help is on the Way XXV: Celebrating Broadway,” on Sunday, August 18. It will be held at the Herbst Theater and Green Room of San Francisco. This event will celebrate Broadway’s best with Tony Award-winning and nominated singers, songs and casts. The entertainers will include the San Francisco touring cast of Hamilton.

    The concert at 7 pm will be preceded by a VIP party at 5 pm in the Green Room upstairs from the theater and will be followed by a nightclub-themed after party with the cast for higher priced tickets. REAF’s Grand Diva, Carole Cook, will also be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her 95th birthday and many, many performances for REAF.

    REAF is also grateful for their newest presenting sponsor, Delta Dental, without whose support the Gala show would not be possible. For a listing of the event’s full cast and for other details, please visit https://www.reaf-sf.org/