[Noozhawk’s note: Third in a series of articles highlighting Santa Barbara’s Man and Woman of the Year awards. The nomination period for 2013 honors is now open.]

Gerry Cruz

Gerry Cruz, a devoted volunteer with Pacific Pride Foundation’s Food Pantry, knows firsthand how important it is to those with AIDS. “If I can help, I not only want to, but should … for those who have gone on before me, and for those of us who just plain refuse to go,” he says. (Isaac Hernandez photo / www.isaachernandez.com)

The eve of the 21st century was a tough time for Gerry Cruz. In just 90 days, he had lost 40 pounds and then spent three weeks in a hospital suffering from complications of AIDS.

When he emerged, greatly weakened, he needed help regaining weight. Caring volunteers from the Pacific Pride Foundation’s Food Pantry stepped up. Cruz “shopped” there for many years, receiving advice on types of foods and how to prepare them.

The Pacific Pride Foundation has a Food Pantry in both Santa Barbara and Santa Maria, assisting more than 450 low-income men, women and children struggling with HIV/AIDS. Each week, these individuals come to the pantries to get free groceries, fresh produce, dairy products, supplements, vitamins and personal care products.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Cruz has been a successful revitalizer of failing restaurants, plying his trade in several communities in California and Arizona. During his years of recovery, he made a conscious decision to experience his life as fully and intensely as possible. Once back to his full weight of 200 pounds, he started devoting much of his time to helping others.

For three years now, Cruz has been volunteering at the pantry, stocking shelves and teaching people how to shop and cook for one. Some clients have been abandoned by family and must adjust to living alone; Cruz is there to lend a sympathetic ear and gentle encouragement for those who “are feeling sorry for themselves and waiting to die.”

Cruz plans to devote even more volunteer time with Pacific Pride. He is intensely aware that medical advances in the fight against AIDS have caused younger people to forget that it is still a dangerous disease. The infection rate continues to climb and what he calls a “healthy fear” is diminishing. He hopes to speak to young people in local high schools and agricultural communities about the challenges of being gay.

The Santa Barbara resident has come a long way. He came out about his HIV/AIDS status this year, realizing that keeping it hidden was a lot more work than simply being who he is. He is feeling fine and looking forward to sharing what he has learned.

“If I can help, I not only want to, but should … for those who have gone on before me, and for those of us who just plain refuse to go,” he said.

Cruz will celebrate his 47th birthday in September. His gift is the satisfaction of creating positive change for others.

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Volunteers enrich all our lives.

Do you know a volunteer who has made a significant impact on the Santa Barbara community? You can nominate that person to be the next Man or Woman of the Year! Click here to fill out a simple online nomination form. Sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation, Noozhawk and KDB, nominations are open until Aug. 30.

— Suzanne Farwell represents the Santa Barbara Foundation. Click here for a related story.