It is impossible to describe 25 years of Leslie Fay Pomerantz’s outstanding volunteer service to GMHC in one page — but we are going to try on one very special night. On April 21 at KUDOS, the annual volunteer appreciation party, Leslie will be first person to be honored for a quarter century of volunteering.
Leslie’s journey at GMHC began in 1985.
Leslie, a mother of two and grandmother of three, felt compelled to help when she heard about how poorly people with AIDS were being treated in some hospitals. This was at a time when it was not uncommon to see trays of food being left outside the hospital rooms of patients with AIDS because people were ill-informed about the disease and overly fearful of contagion.
After reading about GMHC, her anger motivated her to start volunteering as a Buddy. Buddies were each assigned to a person with AIDS who had become a GMHC client. Leslie joined a few hundred volunteers who provided emotional support, help with the laundry, shopping for groceries and being a friend — at a time when many who were sick were also alone. Leslie became renowned for the “Leslie Maneuver” when she refused to give a nurse the apartment keys of one of her first clients, Emilio. By doing so, the hospital could not send him home (early remove) and had to find him a bed. At 3:30 am, the doctor called her at home and scolded her for “not working within the system.” The client finally got a bed, but when Leslie returned to the hospital the next day, his food tray had been left outside the room. Emilio died three days later.
In her first year as a Buddy, she helped a few clients — all gay men who rapidly died of AIDS. “We attended so many memorial services back then," recalled Leslie. "So many men were cremated because their families disowned them."
A year and a half later upon the death of the first team leader from AIDS, Leslie became the team leader of Buddy Team #2. Their team meetings were held in her home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. "The meetings ran long because all the Buddies had such powerful stories to share about their experiences with clients," said Leslie. "All of us were very committed to the work. My team also participated in the AIDS Walk New York each year to help raise money for GMHC."
In the mid-1990s with the introduction of new medications, Leslie worked with clients for longer periods of time. However, the needs of many people living with HIV and AIDS began to shift. AIDS-related deaths were declining, people were living longer and some were returning to work. In 2006, due to cuts in government funding, coupled with the decreased need for the service, the Buddy Program was discontinued. Since then, Leslie has continued to meet with her team, and offer help to clients who may need additional support — one of whom she has stayed in contact with for the past five years. Leslie’s generosity extends to financial support including sponsorship of the annual art exhibit featuring the work of clients who are professional and first-time artists. Nowadays, you will find her here on Thursday afternoons as she volunteers at the Meals Program reception desk on the 12th floor during lunch.
"I am still very involved with GMHC,” added Leslie. “It might not be the way it was when I started. But it is still my agency. I cannot think of leaving GMHC."