Noel Floresca, left, and Jon Stetson will be honored later this month with a leadership award. Says Floresca, “I want to share what I went through to help others emotionally.”

The lives of Jon Stetson and Noel Floresca intertwine while volunteering to help those in Southern Arizona’s HIV community.

Their work in fundraising, feeding and comforting the sick, preparing care packages and educating families and workers about HIV and AIDS for more than 20 years is bringing them recognition.

The couple was selected to receive the Center for Health and Hope’s 2019 Leadership Award “for their extraordinary volunteer service in Southern Arizona’s HIV community.”

The award will be presented during the Fifth Annual Swinging@AIDS Benefit weekend featuring a concert and golf tournament on March 22-23. (See box.)

The human immunodeficiency virus is a sexually transmitted infection that damages the immune system. HIV can also spread from an infected person through blood, and the sharing of injection needles and syringes. The virus causes AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, a chronic and potentially life-threatening condition. There is no cure.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services 2018 HIV/AIDS Epidemiology Supplemental Report, 18,190 people in Arizona have HIV/AIDS. In Pima County, there are 2,863. Both figures are based on 2017 data.

Overcame polio

As a 9-year-old boy in Flint, Michigan, Jon Stetson experienced people’s fear around polio, and he said he saw that same fear of HIV and AIDS.

While sitting in the bright living room of his north-side home, he reflected on his childhood and those months in isolation in the hospital where he had difficulty breathing because polio had paralyzed muscles in his chest. He lapsed into a coma and his mother, a registered nurse, did not leave his bedside.

She refused to have her son put in an iron lung, fearing his death like so many others who were not saved by the tank respirator.

“My whole body hurt,” remembered Stetson. “I didn’t want to move. I was curled up in a fetal position. I wanted to look at my mother, but it hurt too much to move.” He said he missed one year of school, and if it wasn’t for his mother he believes he would have died, explaining he also suffered paralysis in the neck and had to learn to walk again.

Stetson, who was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome two years ago, said the fear he saw on people’s faces as a boy is the same he has seen on those who do not understand HIV and AIDS.

Stetson said he began volunteering in 1987 by comforting and holding the hands of dying men in hospitals or who were at their homes. These men were diagnosed with AIDS, a pandemic that the medical field did not know much about three decades ago.

“It is painful to remember,” said Stetson, 77, as his eyes swelled with tears. “Back in those days, families abandoned people with AIDS. People were afraid and ashamed because it was mostly gay men, a gay stigma and a religious no-no,” he said. “It hasn’t totally changed. There are still people who abandon their kids.”

For 18 years, Stetson was a staff member at St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church, at North Swan and East River roads. Stetson’s work included the reconciling movement — to publicly support and welcome people of all sexual orientations and gender identities into the church. He traveled and educated congregations about being gay and religious.

Near-death experience

Stetson and his partner, Floresca, have leaned on each other for 22 years and both have been a key part of Southern Arizona’s HIV community. Floresca was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, and had full-blown AIDS in 1996, lying near death at St. Mary’s Hospital.

Floresca’s immune system was compromised, and he was stricken with tuberculosis and the respiratory disease valley fever. He said his will to live, the support from his loving family and the work of his medical team pulled him through several crises during his three-month stay.

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In 1998, he qualified for disability and received services from the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, or SAAF, which set him up with a case manager, and moved him into an apartment. As he gained his strength, he attended church at St. Francis in the Foothills and Stetson introduced him to the work done by the Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network, also known as TIHAN.

Floresca, 55, also received support from TIHAN volunteers who took him to medical appointments and shopped for his groceries. As he became healthy, he said he wanted to give back and began volunteering doing office work, cleaning and supporting others with HIV/AIDS, including connecting them to services they need.

He also was one of the founders of Poz Café, which has served more than 27,000 meals to people living with HIV. The cafe, which is on the grounds of St. Francis in the Foothills, is a safe place for people to socialize and enjoy a nutritious meal once a month outside their home, said Floresca.

Floresca, who is facing another battle, recently found out that even though his HIV and AIDS are under control with medication, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He is on a waiting list for a liver transplant. Side effects from his medication also have resulted in fatty tissue deposits on his back and neck, causing him to undergo several surgeries.

“I want to pass on what I have learned from having AIDS. At first, I was angry and ashamed. But, once I accepted it, I was able to move forward. Now, I want to share what I went through to help others emotionally and I want to continue helping them through the system and connect them with services,” said Floresca.

Showing Compassion

“Jon and Noel are among the most giving and caring volunteers our community has seen,” said Scott Blades, the executive director of TIHAN.

“We’re so happy they’re being honored — this recognition is so well-deserved.”

The Rev. Donald E. Messer, executive director of the Center for Health and Hope, said the couple “epitomize the highest values of compassion, care, and service. Together they are a living witness of courageous advocates seeking to conquer HIV and AIDS in our time.”

The Center for Health and Hope, of Centennial, Colorado, is a faith-based organization that supports and advocates for persons infected and affected by HIV and AIDS around the world.

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at cduarte@tucson.com or 573-4104. On Twitter: @cduartestar