At a time when gay men were dying at an alarming rate, when society was frightened — and for the most part, uneducated — about this sinister epidemic known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), eight fiercely determined individuals fought to create an oasis of hope in the desert.
It was the summer of 1984 — just three years removed from the first official reporting, in 1981, of what would become the AIDS epidemic. During those horrific early days friends and family members routinely turned their backs on loved ones in their desperate time of need. Businesses — especially tourism-related operations — weren’t thrilled hearing “AIDS” and “Palm Springs” mentioned in the same breath. Civic and community leaders worried about how the image of the city — with its growing gay population and the threat of an incurable disease taking down this population — would play to the rest of the country.
Nevertheless, Palm Springs resident Donald Beck, along with a medical doctor, three registered nurses, a licensed clinical social worker and two other staunch supporters, decided to take the first steps to establish an AIDS support and educational organization that would become known as Desert AIDS Project. It would be launched as an offshoot of the already established Desert Community Health & Welfare Council.
On Aug. 14, 1984, with the approval of Secretary of State March Fong Eu, the newly established Community Counseling & Consultation Center Inc. (C.C.C.C.) became an official nonprofit corporation which would provide the government funding channel to the Desert AIDS Project.
The incorporation of C.C.C.C. served another purpose. It allowed the fledgling organization to operate under an innocuous name until the community could come to terms with the still-scary term, “AIDS.”
Beck, now 85, worked at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center in the early 1980s when the country was just beginning to grapple with this new “gay disease” and was familiar with AIDS support programs. In 1984 — when he was living part-time in Palm Springs — he and a group of gay men attended a two-week retreat in Wildwood in Sonoma County.
“I think there were maybe about 20 people and 16 of them had AIDS,” Beck said. “We spent the whole two weeks doing all kinds of fun things like putting on little plays, we broke up into groups and we did all kinds of stuff. We wrote poetry.”
The time in the mountain community was inspirational, while at the same time, the men were reflective. At one point, they climbed a hill where they held a small memorial service for one of the men who had recently lost his partner to AIDS. They picked up flowers, rocks and other small items they came across on the hike up and placed them together on the ground where the men gathered for the service.
“There were about four or five of us from Palm Springs and we thought, ‘Why don’t we start an AIDS program here?’” Beck said.
When the first Desert AIDS Project office opened, it was a small space, tucked into a building on Belardo Road in Palm Springs. But it was a place where people could find emotional support in a society that was largely fearful of AIDS and scornful of those who had it.
In October 1984, the city’s “dirty laundry” was aired for all to see in the press, when Mayor Frank Bogert’s comments caused a stir when he and other community leaders asked local hotel owner Fred Hardt to drop his plans for converting his business into a residence for AIDS victims. Hardt, responding to the public protests, said he would consider moving his proposed Hardtline Residence Resort Project out of the city.
He ended up opening it to AIDS patients, but his operation was short-lived, as he wasn’t able to secure funding to make necessary upgrades in order to completely convert the hotel.
Bill Smith, who became executive director of the Desert AIDS Project in 1987, described the angst that was prevalent in the community in a story that ran in the May 1, 1992 edition of The Desert Sun. “AIDS was so controversial and there was so much anger directed at the people who had AIDS, that the board was actually fearful of using the word ‘AIDS’ on the door,” he said.
He said the office often received hateful letters and nasty phone calls from people intolerant of gay people and the disease. He said he realized that to succeed, the Desert AIDS Project would need the support of the community.
“This job is 60 percent service delivery and 120 percent politics,” he said. “I recognized that from the beginning and I knew that would be the thing we would have to conquer.”
Smith and a former board president approached numerous religious leaders and politicians in search of support that would lend credibility to the organization. Their requests were denied.
Finally, they met with Riverside County Supervisor Patricia “Corky” Larson, who agreed to let the project use her name on its official stationery.
“After that, we were on a roll,” Smith said.
The money, however, was by no means rolling in. The group had to scrape for every grant dollar and donation. In 1987, D.A.P. leadership approached Coachella Valley cities asking for financial help to fund operations, as debts were piling up and costs associated with running the organization increased.
Four desert cities came through with financial assistance. Cathedral City, Indian Wells, Palm Desert and Palm Springs each contributed $5,000.
“Folks who have AIDS need someone to turn to,” said Dick Oliphant, then-mayor of Indian Wells. “Thank goodness they have someone like you.”
The same year, the Gannett Foundation — Gannett Co. owns The Desert Sun — awarded D.A.P. a $5,000 grant to develop education and training programs to stem the threat of the disease.
In April 1988, the city of Rancho Mirage gave D.A.P. $10,000 in federal community block grant monies.
Just a few months later, D.A.P. moved into new offices at 750 S. Vella Road in Palm Springs, where the project provided health education and prevention programs on AIDS, HIV testing, social services and counseling support services to people with AIDS, their families and friends.
Around this time, Marty Willans, a clinical social worker with hospice at Desert Hospital, began working as a counselor at Desert AIDS Project. Willans, who lives in Rancho Mirage, first came through the doors of DAP seeking answers about his own health.
“I had anxiety about contracting HIV, and ‘do I have it or not,’ because none of us knew unless you were symptomatic,” Willans said. “In a way, I became a client around being educated and dealing with this uncertainty.”
Willans, who tested HIV-negative, served on the front lines as a therapist during a frightening time of uncertainty surrounding the disease, as AIDS-related illness claimed life after life in the desert community.
“We know we’re going to go some way, in the end, but these guys were challenged with, at a fairly young age — when they’re developing careers and when they’re just finding themselves in adulthood — to have deal with end-of-life issues,” Willans said. “The chaos in family relationships, especially in those early years when a family not knowing the kid is gay and all of a sudden they’re dying of HIV. The horror stories … family rejection.
“People were dealing with the shock of getting their test results or having their first opportunistic infection,” Willans added. “There was a lot of anxiety. ‘Should I cash in my life insurance?’ A lot of guys did that. Knowing, at that point, your life expectancy was limited. People were contemplating, ‘How am I going to get through this when I can’t work?’”
Bursting at the seams with clients, Desert AIDS Project continued to respond to the escalating needs of those stricken with the virus. There was a grass-roots groundswell that uplifted the organization as it expanded.
“There was an excitement, because it was a new organization and a new setting (in its new offices),” Willans said. “The resource development started getting off the ground — the community being involved in supporting it and this big push towards education. Support groups. Staff-wise, it was starting to grow.
“There was an energy that, ‘We want to help, we want to help each other, we want to know all this new information,’” Willans said. “Being current on the disease, the progress of the disease, the development of drugs. It’s an agency that’s grown with the treatment and dealing with the disease over these many years.”
The late 1980s and early 1990s were pivotal years in D.A.P. history, as fundraising efforts broadened in scope, and high-quality, professionally produced events garnered high-dollar donations from wealthy benefactors.
In 1989, Desert AIDS Project held its First Annual Desert AIDS Walk, a 10K in downtown Palm Springs, drawing the support of high-profile folks like Kirk and Anne Douglas, who participated in the event.
“Let’s walk, run, do whatever we can to eradicate AIDS,” Kirk Douglas said during his opening remarks before participants hit the streets. Former President Gerald and former first lady Betty Ford attended the post-walk picnic event held on the grounds of the Desert Fashion Plaza.
In commemoration of the walk, The Desert Sun produced a 20–page special section, “AIDS in the Valley.” The section featured stories of people living with AIDS; AIDS education in the community and schools; updates on medical treatments and research; national and local AIDS statistics; and countless advertisements expressing support for the work of D.A.P. and the gay community.
Local philanthropists became increasingly engaged in the mission of Desert AIDS Project. A turning point came on Sunday, Feb. 16, 1992, when the renowned interior designer and D.A.P. board member Steve Chase chaired the sold-out “An Event in 3 Acts,” which featured “Heart Strings,” a musical extravaganza, at the McCallum Theatre. Singer Thelma Houston announced at the beginning of the show that it was the largest fundraiser ever held for Desert AIDS Project.
At the time of the announcement, $360,000 had already been raised, nearly double the goal of $200,000.
The evening began early with a 5:30 p.m. pre-theater dinner at Wally’s Desert Turtle in Rancho Mirage. Underwritten by Chase, it was attended by 240 guests who paid $750 for the formal event, which also included the show and cast party.
A year later, on Feb. 14, 1993, A Valentine’s Gala — honoring Betty Ford, McDonald’s hamburger chain owner Joan Kroc, and Chase, “for their support and generous contributions” — was held at the McCallum Theatre. Singer Jane Olivor headlined the event. Desert AIDS Project fundraisers were becoming routinely epic.
Chase, who died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 52, left an indelible mark on Desert AIDS Project not only through his philanthropic efforts, but also through his connections to those in a position to make lasting contributions to the mission of D.A.P.
In 1990, Joan Kroc sold her Rancho Mirage home for $2.8 million, with proceeds going to three charities, including Desert AIDS Project. Her home was designed, built and decorated by Chase, a friend.
The beloved benefactor’s name graces D.A.P.’s annual, major fundraising event, the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards Gala, established in 1995. The first event, held at the McCallum Theatre, honored Actress Mary Steenburgen and Luc Montagnier, president of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention for their individual efforts in the fight against AIDS.
Funds generated from these events and contributions from generous philanthropists, enabled the purchase of Desert AIDS Project’s current campus at 1695 N. Sunrise Way in Palm Springs, where its offices and services were moved, from Vella Road, in May 1999.
INFOBOX: D.A.P. Founders
These eight individuals were honored as the founders of Desert AIDS Project during a gala benefit on Sunday, April 26, 1987 (with their names listed in the invitation):
Bruce Lloyd, M.D.
David Mackie, R.N., M.N.
Kathy McCauley, R.N.
George Sonsel, LCSW
Bonnie Wade, R.N.