Heroes in the Fight: Meet John

It’s pushing 80 degrees on this August afternoon, but that doesn’t stop more than a dozen volunteers from hoisting shovels, hauling soil, and transplanting flowers and greenery on the sunny rooftop of the Peter Claver Community, a residential care facility for people with disabling HIV/AIDS. Today’s workday is a project of Bridgemen, a program of San Francisco AIDS Foundation for gay and bisexual guys in their 30s and 40s who want to reinvest in their community—and it’s the vision of Bridgemen member John David.

John, himself a transplant from Texas, was looking for community when he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and he found it with Bridgemen. “I’d been trying to find a good volunteer group for a long time,” John says. “I volunteered at a few places but nothing really stuck.” After attending a Bridgemen event nine months ago, he knew he’d found the right fit. “It’s just a great organization. I got into it thinking, ‘Who knows if it will last?’ But every time I go, it’s a really wonderful experience.”

Bridgemen runs on a uniquely democratic model: Participants propose ideas for community service projects and vote on which ones to pursue, then one or two members organize the event and work with their fellow Bridgemen to make it a success. At past events, members have delivered toys to hospitalized children living with HIV, served holiday meals to LGBT seniors and older adults, and built housing units for low-income families. “If you’re looking for a group of people who support each other, and who have a lot of energy and humor and passion for helping out, check out Bridgemen,” John enthuses. When he learned that the Peter Claver Community was looking to transform an empty corner into a garden oasis, “it just sounded ideal for Bridgemen.”

“This is my first event, the first one I’m co-organizing,” he adds. “That’s why it’s special to me.” John helped round up not only volunteer muscle but also the donated furniture, hand-painted pots, and plants—mostly California natives, to help attract butterflies and birds—that will beautify the space. Today’s project brings together skills and interests he developed while planting trees in Los Angeles schoolyards and while providing emotional support to people with HIV/AIDS as a volunteer with L.A. Shanti. “A little bit of respite, a little bit of beauty—it adds to your life,” John believes. For people living with a chronic illness like HIV, “I think it can help on many levels.”

The Peter Claver Community has been serving low-income HIV-positive people since 1985. At the residential center today, what does John envision as he and his fellow volunteers dig, transplant, and water? “Someone sipping tea while flower petals flutter past,” he smiles. “A really calming, safe space with sunshine and beautiful plants. Just having a space like that is invaluable—especially for people whose lives are circumscribed by their health and economic factors.”

John understands, from personal experience, how health and finances intersect. What stands out first about him is his enthusiasm and bubbly laugh, but another unique feature is his customized prosthetic leg. John discovered a blister on his left foot about a year and a half ago, at a time when he couldn’t afford health insurance. After self-treatment failed to cure the resulting infection (a complication of his diabetes), his lower leg was amputated. The prosthesis he uses today is secured just below the knee by snowboard latches, and the device gleams with a bold red and black design John created in homage to a favorite comic book character. “My first one was covered in glitter!” he laughs. “I’m not sure yet what the next one will look like.”

But you can bet it will be something special—another example of John meeting a challenge with creativity and heart. 

Have you seen Bridgemen's impact in our community? Send John and his fellow Bridgemen a word of thanks in the comments below! Inspired to join Bridgemen and make a difference in San Francisco and beyond? Check them out online at Bridgemen.org.

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