When Dave Gana entered Starbucks in New Hope, he was proudly wearing a dog tag with a smiley face. The face is “Mr. Friendly,” the logo of an international organization that promotes HIV awareness.
Dave is Captain of Team Friendly Bucks which serves Bucks County and the surrounding areas. Mr. Friendly was started in 2008 by Dave Watt who found that talking about HIV was not met with a positive response. Their mission is to “reduce the stigma of HIV, one conversation at a time.”
Gana became involved in the organization when he saw someone wearing the dog tag at a campsite. As a Team Captain he now goes to Out Festivals and charity events promoting “Mr. Friendly”. His goal is to provide a way to open up dialogue about HIV in a friendly, non-judgmental way and to respect other’s opinions. Dave said he always does this “with a smile.” He says his role is that of “comrade, confidante and health ambassador,” always encouraging HIV testing.
Dave Gana is no stranger to HIV, being positive for the last 30 years. He made a decision to be “living with the disease, instead of dying from it” and said, “it is not a death sentence, only if you decide it is.” When his partner died from the disease in 1990, a time when people did not openly talk about the disease, Dave promised his partner that his death would not be in vain. He has since dedicated his life to those living with HIV.
In keeping with his promise to his partner, he went into training with an AIDS organization to become a speaker. He also did fundraising for AmfAR, the organization founded by Elizabeth Taylor, raising money for AIDS.
He got involved in the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and made a panel in memory of his partner. He worked at the quilt’s opening ceremonies in California and Washington, DC. Each panel is sewed to be 3 ft. x 6 ft. to represent the size of a coffin he reminded me.
In 1998, the quilt was displayed in its entirety on the Mall in Washington DC. He said when the quilt was laid out, it was a coming together of everyone involved and the outpouring of emotion was enormous. Gana said it showed, “the enormity of the disease.” The quilt is now stored in a warehouse in San Francisco and panels are brought out for different events all year long and all over the world.
During the time he was volunteering for the quilt, he created and published a newsletter for the AIDS community. It provided a list of services and charity events and featured alternative therapies to help combat the horrible side effects from the HIV drugs. He even created a small service agency to provide peer support and transportation to and from doctor appointments.
After living in California and Seattle, Dave moved to Bucks County, Penn. in 2012. He was so ill at the time that he was transported back to Pennsylvania unconscious. When he woke up in his hospital bed, he said the first thing he did was to help start a health agency in Kenya with someone who worked at the hospital, in true Dave Gana fashion.
When he grew strong enough, he volunteered at the Peace Meal, a monthly dinner for those living with HIV, held at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Solebury, Penn. Dave found that there were limited resources in the area for those living with HIV, so he founded a group in Doylestown where people could find the emotional support that is so often lacking. He became a Certified Peer Specialist for HIV.
There is more. He also serves on the Planning Counsel for the Office of HIV Planning in Philadelphia. That office determines how money is appropriated to various counties, including four in New Jersey.
When we were ready to leave Starbucks, I asked Dave how he does all this. His vibrancy for life and commitment is amazing, even when he may not be feeling well. He said his goal is to make sure people with HIV have access to services, are treated with compassion and have the support they need. With a big smile he said it gives him happiness knowing that someone is not alone and they feel they have a purpose in life.
Surely, the smiley face of “Mr. Friendly,” that he proudly wears, could not be more at home than on Dave.
For more visit www.facebook.com/team-friendly-bucks.