Tim Kasting, left, Karen Sparks, John Wilson and the Rev. Jim Wiltbank are among the 400-plus volunteers who support the Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network to provide vital services to people with HIV/AIDS.

For 25 years, the Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network has shined as a beacon of hope for people impacted by HIV/AIDS.

The community can celebrate that anniversary with Sparkle & Silver—Treasures for TIHAN Benefit Auction & Party at 6 p.m. June 15.

“It is a milestone year for TIHAN: The ‘silver’ represents 25 years of memories, people, programs and the promise of a future without HIV; and the ‘sparkle’ celebrates the impact of volunteers and supporters in the community who are trying to make a difference,” said Scott Blades, TIHAN executive director.

In 1994 a group from local faith communities — led by an HIV/AIDS ministry that started at St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church in the 1980s — joined together with a vision of reducing the stigma surrounding HIV and increasing the level of support for those living with HIV/AIDS in Southern Arizona.

“When we think back 25 years to where we were at with the AIDS crisis, not just in the disease arena with medications, but in the community and how people reacted to HIV and AIDS, it is great to think of the progress we have made,” said the Rev. Jim Wiltbank, pastor of St. Francis in the Foothills. “Now, so much has changed and the community has been transformed in the way it views and treats those living with the disease.”

Wiltbank said there is still much work to be done to reduce the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. He emphasized that St. Francis prides itself on inclusiveness. He said the congregation’s mission to show love to all people is epitomized by TIHAN and the 48 faith partners along with corporate and nonprofit partners.

“I think any disease tends to isolate people, and HIV and AIDS, which have such stigmas attached, isolate people even more. At TIHAN, I see all of that dissolve and people just enjoy each other’s company. People come together to find that amazing middle ground that develops when we choose to place our lives in each other’s hands,” Wiltbank said.

Tim Kasting, a TIHAN volunteer and CarePartner (a person living with HIV/AIDS who receives TIHAN services), said in addition to education and outreach, TIHAN provides a sanctuary for CarePartners and their support systems.

Kasting is particularly enthusiastic about the Poz Cafe, which offers monthly lunch and social programs for CarePartners.

“They not only provide first-class, nutritious meals, which is important to all of us, but it is nice to just be with a group of people that share maybe some of the same struggles, if you will. We also play bingo and have raffles and receive prizes that have been donated. It is a really fun event and the volunteers are just amazing,” said Kasting, who has been living with HIV for 34 years.

The Poz Cafe also serves as a distribution point for CarePackages, which contain toiletries, cleaning and household supplies, clothing and other basic necessities. Additionally, delivery of CarePackages is offered through volunteers who provide support services.

John Wilson, a trained volunteer, said the experience has been rewarding.

“These are ordinary items that people really need to live and it is a great pleasure to take them to folks around town and get to know them. There are a lot of delightful people out there, and I come back enriched and enhanced by the visits,” said Wilson, a retired dancer and choreographer who lost friends and colleagues to AIDS.

Wilson also works with Karen Sparks as liaisons between St. Francis and TIHAN, and both assist with Poz Cafe.

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Sparks said the cafe has served more than 27,000 meals to more than 1,000 people since it began. More than 15,000 CarePackages have also been distributed.

“The cafe is overflowing with acceptance and love and everyone is so happy that it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. This is a place where people are totally cared for and safe. It is a big happy family; that is what it is,” said Sparks.

A retired nurse, Sparks hopes the public will come out to support TIHAN at the fundraiser.

“CarePartners need the support. Many of them are isolated and if they don’t have a partner or family nearby, they feel segregated. I know that some people are ostracized by their bio families and as painful as that must be for them, they know that at TIHAN there are people who love them,” she said.

Kasting emphasized that without TIHAN’s support, many people would be lost.

“I have seen different groups in different cities, and TIHAN is one of the best out there. Without them, I am not sure what many people in my community would do,” he said.

Overall, Wiltbank said that TIHAN is the result of visionaries who opened their hearts and dreamed big. Blades agrees with his assessment.

“TIHAN has grown and blossomed because of the permission, the welcoming, the creativity, the passion and the care about social justice of individuals, faith communities, corporate partners, and nonprofits in our community. They have the desire and belief that we can find ways to support people living with HIV and AIDS — not just on a macro level but also on a very personal level right here in our community,” Blades said.

Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at ninch2@comcast.net