By Tamara Juarez, May 2016 Web Exclusive.
For the past 10 years, Glen Spencer has dedicated his life to increasing community awareness of HIV and AIDS, one of the world’s most lethal health threats.
After being diagnosed with advanced AIDS in 2002, Spencer decided to transform his struggles into an opportunity to help others by participating in local organizations, such as HIV Care Directions and Aunt Rita’s Foundation, where he was appointed the executive director in late 2015.
“I am so gratified and so humbled by this opportunity, and every day I am thankful for my ability to be here and work for this cause,” Spencer said. “I just hope to continue all of the fine work that has gone before me.”
Spencer began working for Aunt Rita’s Foundation in 2006, after hosting a SAVORlife dinner with a co-worker from HIV Care Directions.
Since 2005, SAVORlife – just one of Aunt Rita’s signature fundraising campaigns – has raised more than a million dollars that has gone on to benefit the organization’s 16 member agencies that provide services such as primary medical care, case management and testing to residents across the Valley.
Getting to witness the tremendous growth of Aunt Rita’s Foundation throughout the years and oversee all future expansions is incredibly rewarding, he said.
As executive director, Spencer’s main goal is to guide Aunt Rita’s Foundation to greater heights by developing new events, increasing the number of collaborative projects and ensuring that those with HIV and AID can find support when they most need it.
“We have to strategically envision different ways to grow the grant-giving aspect of Aunt Rita’s Foundation to help those who are living with HIV and support their challenges,” he said. “These large community events give us a speaking point for the general population and remind people that HIV is a continuing epidemic.”
According to the Arizona Department of Health Services’ 2015 annual report, there are 16,608 people living with HIV or AIDS in Arizona, which is a 23 percent increase in five years.
“Until there are no new HIV infections, or until there is a cure for AIDS, we must continue these efforts, because the social cost and social stigma is simple unacceptable,” said Spencer, who struggled for many years before accepting his HIV status.
Before being diagnosed, the 54-year-old advocate faced the same fears many of the people he now helps are battling.
“I had been getting progressively sick for a year prior to testing positive, and I was truly one of those persons who was just in denial about it, so it just took me a while to get tested,” he said. “When I tested positive, I can’t say that I was surprised … I had severe anemia, I could barely walk from one side of the street to the other without losing my breath, I had to force myself to eat ... I definitely knew something was wrong.”
Once he found the courage to get tested, Spencer immediately began treatment and looking for places where he could volunteer. Before making his way to Aunt Rita’s Foundation, Spencer worked with the Ryan White Planning Council and with HIV Care Directions as a case manager.
Spencer remembers those years fondly.
“I hadn’t been a social worker in my life.” he said with a laugh. “I had a college degree, so I met the minimum requirement, but (HIV Care Directions) had seen my level of commitment to the committee, so I went back to work during a time when I was trying to get better, and that was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
HIV Care Directions wasn’t the only organization that recognized Spencer’s devotion and unwavering commitment to helping the Phoenix community. One year after joining Aunt Rita’s Foundation, Spencer was asked to serve as the Board Chair.
It was during this time that Spencer convinced his friend Kit Kloeckl, Aunt Rita’s Foundation’s former executive director and current director of programs, to join the non-profit organization and sit on the board.
Together, alongside other members, they took on the AIDS Walk, Aunt Rita’s Foundation’s largest and most attended fundraiser.
Since its reintroduction in 2008, AIDS Walk Arizona & 5K Run has become one of the biggest HIV and AIDS events in the state, drawing more than 6,000 participants per year. In 2015, the event raised over $300,000 for benefiting agencies.
“Taking on the AIDS walk was a seminal moment in what Aunt Rita’s foundation is today,” said Spencer. “It wouldn’t have been possible without Kit, the board, staff and volunteers.”
Kloeckl holds nothing but praise and good wishes for Spencer as he takes on his new role.
“I couldn’t be more pleased about the board’s decision,” Kloeckl said. “Glen is the one person I know will continue Aunt Rita’s in the direction that its going and take it to the next level. They absolutely made the right choice.”