By Laura Latzko, November 2016 Issue.

When clients visit the Joshua Tree Feeding Program’s weekly food pantry, they receive 35 pounds of food. This year alone, Joshua Tree has already distributed approximately 110,000 pounds of food.

To continue carrying out this mission, which is “provide nourishment to low-income HIV+ residents of Maricopa County,” and to also make necessary improvements to its operation, the organization hosts various fundraisers throughout the year.

One of Joshua Tree’s signature events is its annual Masquerade Gala. This year, the fourth annual event is set for Nov. 11 at the Four Points by Sheraton Phoenix North.

“[This event] is Joshua Tree thanking the community for being there to help and support us,” said Joseph Gaxiola, Joshua Tree’s chairman. “It’s our thank you for everyone who’s helped us to keep these doors open for the last 28 years. If it wasn’t for all of the community members and organizations, we would have closed years ago.”

According to Gaxiola, the funds raised as part of the gala will help the nonprofit continue to make a difference in the lives of their clientele.

“We want to be self-reliant. While the community does a lot for us, we want to be able to pay our own bills,” Gaxiola said, adding that the organization plans to purchase updated refrigerators and freezers, new doors for the church and a refrigerated van or truck.

The masquerade gala will feature an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet, a cocktail hour, a silent auction, a fashion show and entertainment.

The gala, hosted by Olivia Gardens, will include Nicole Stanton as the keynote speaker, words from science fiction and fantasy author Gini Koch and live music from Lloyd Edward Pulley and Gina Fletcher and her band.

Joshua Tree will also honor individuals and organizations with the presentation of its annual awards, which include the Chairman Award, the Miss Ebony Fundraising Award, the Scott Robinson Volunteer Award (chosen from volunteer of the month recipients), the Community Legacy Award and the Founder’s Award.

Along with the masquerade gala, Joshua Tree raises money through fundraisers such as bowling events, dodgeball tournaments and Taste of Italy nights. However, Gaxiola explained that Joshua Tree strives to set its annual gala apart from its other fundraisers.

During the gala, Joshua Tree will host a silent auction for a wide variety of donations ranging from Disneyland and Phoenix Zoo tickets to paintings from local artists and a wine tasting party.

As a result, the organization’s board members and volunteers will walk the runway in a live fashion show auction that will feature men’s and women’s attire that’s been donated by community members – including costumes donated by the event’s fundraising coordinator Jayme Christensen-Walker aka Nikki Starr.

“We wanted to do our [gala] differently than everybody else,” Gaxiola said, adding that the masquerade is family friendly event. “We want to appeal to everybody with the masquerade, whether it’s a bar audience or families. We want everybody to be comfortable when they are at the masquerade.”

For Gaxiola and the other staff members, getting to know volunteers and clients on a more personal level is an important part of the event.

“It feels like a family,” Gaxiola said. “It’s like seeing old friends and family.”

Unmasking The Mission

Throughout the 28 years that Joshua Tree has been serving the community, it’s grown from a modest effort of three founding members handing out donations from an apartment to its current large-scale operation based out of the Phoenix First Congregational United Church of Christ, 214 E. Willetta St. in Phoenix, where it moved in 2013.

Today, a staff of dedicated volunteers organize and run the weekly food pantry.

According to Peter Rodriguez, Joshua Tree’s Vice Chairman, board members and volunteers all take on different roles and assist each other.

“We all juggle different things at once,” he said. “Between all of us, we take on different [responsibilities] so one person isn’t getting overburdened.”

With the closing of the AGAPE Network food pantry three years ago, Gaxiola said the number of clients Joshua Tree serves continues to grow – this includes clients of Chicanos Por La Causa and  50 to 60 pregnant women through a recently established relationship with the Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

So far this year, the organization has worked with 337 unique clients. And 2016 is still far from over.

“We’re a food pantry for the HIV and AIDS community,” Gaxiola said. “We have fun. We get the job done, but we have fun while doing it.”

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