Gary Costa’s devotion to helping the HIV and AIDS community ignited while working in retail as a regional manager at Michaels, an arts and crafts store.
In the 1980s, his friend and worker became sick, so he decided to help by looking for information at the San Diego AIDS Project.
Costa said he was “so taken in by the love and support by that one organization that I wanted to be a part of that.” He began volunteering by teaching safe sex and prevention classes for the LGBT community, and his volunteer efforts turned into job offers.
He is now the executive director of Golden Rainbow, a local nonprofit organization that helps people living with HIV and AIDS who need housing or financial assistance.
Before his current role, Costa served for two years as the executive director of The LGBT Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs, Calif., which focused mainly on issues such as same- sex marriage and mental health services. He describes the experience as “very challenging,” since the organization was under transition and “it was a period of extreme growth.”
He said he was attracted to Golden Rainbow partly because he had friends in the area who had received help and spoke highly of it and partly by his love for the organization’s mission.
“It was only natural to come back to the HIV community,” Costa said, since it was his first passion.
Those who receive assistance by Golden Rainbow are referred by a caseworker when they have an emergency need, such as medical expenses, utility bills or a rent check. Golden Rainbow often provides one-time support that those living with HIV or AIDS cannot get anywhere else.
Although it is mostly one-time help, there are those who qualify for monthly assistance, such as low-cost housing.
Receiving emergency aid can take as long as 30 days at other organizations, while at Golden Rainbow it is a matter of hours. The money is given directly to the landlord or billing authority. It is well regulated and well controlled, Costa said.
He said the organization’s strengths are admirable community partners, its great reputation and that “we are the only organization that can provide true immediate assistance to people in need.”
Costa said Golden Rainbow has 800 active clients.
Scott Emerson, second vice chairman for Golden Rainbow’s board of directors, said the organization was looking to hire an executive for the next decade. Costa fit, he said, because he has a business acumen, understands that a charity is a business and understands that money needs to be raised to provide services. Costa has experience with LGBT, HIV and AIDS, and professional fundraising, Emerson added.
Costa said there has been a shift in how HIV and AIDS are perceived since the epidemic began in the 1980s. Emerson said people now think of it as chronic rather than fatal, which forces the organization to adapt to the “evolving culture.”
The biggest fundraising challenge nowadays, Costa said, is finding creative ways to reach the community and raise awareness.
Golden Rainbow has partnered with the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada, aka The Center and Aid for AIDS of Nevada, aka AFAN, to create new educational messages and let people know that HIV and AIDS are not over.
According to their websites, The Center, “a community-based organization, supports and promotes activities directed at furthering the well-being, positive image, and human rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community, its allies, and low to moderate income residents in Southern Nevada.”
AFAN “provides support and advocacy for adults and children living with and affected by HIV/AIDS in Southern Nevada. AFAN works to reduce HIV infection through prevention education to eliminate fear, prejudice and the stigma associated with the disease.”
Golden Rainbow’s largest fundraiser of the year, Ribbon of Life, is set for 1 p.m. Sunday at the Penn and Teller Theater at Rio. Costa said the show, which features many entertainers from the Strip, is a good way to reach out to people who don’t hear about HIV and AIDS. The event is expected to raise about $200,000, he said.
Ribbon of Life debuted in 1987 — after a Las Vegas entertainer died of AIDS-related complications broke and alone in a garage. Members of the entertainment industry decided this should not happen again to one of their own.
Over the years, Golden Rainbow has branched off from primarily helping members of the entertainment industry to “anybody with (HIV or) AIDS in Southern Nevada,” Costa said.
This year, Ribbon of Life will showcase circus-inspired acts and performers from some of the Las Vegas Strip’s biggest shows.
Tickets are $45, $75, $100, $175 and $200 (plus fees). For more information, visit goldenrainbow.org or ticketmaster.com.
Contact Andrea Corral at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0285. Find her on Twitter: @andrea_corral2.