After a national search for an executive director, the board of AIDS Help, Inc., on Saturday interviewed three finalists, hoping to find someone to take the helm when Executive Director Robert Walker retires next week after 12 years.
From a batch of 67 applications, a search committee appointed by the board of directors narrowed the field to seven qualified finalists.
On Saturday, the nonprofit invited the public to watch part of the interviewing process. By Saturday evening, only three people, all locals, remained in the running: Alexsandra Leto, and AIDS Help staff members Patrice Sanders and Joe Pais.
The board met Sunday in a closed meeting to, theoretically, make a final decision, but as of press time Sunday evening representatives hadn't announced whether a decision had been made.
Board member Marcus Varner and President Bryan Green did not return messages from The Citizen on Sunday.
"We may choose 'box d', none of the above, if we think none of the three ideal," Green said on Saturday.
Saddened by the fact that Walker, 67, is battling cancer, more than 50 people with an interest in the organization's future gathered Saturday at Wesley House Family Services on Truman Avenue to glimpse the three finalists.
"These are big, big shoes to fill," said Green. "No matter who comes in. Remember, Robert came from education 12 years ago. He knew diddly [about nonprofits]. This is a learning curve for whoever comes in, who will carry on the mantle of Robert."
Green explained how the list of finalists had shrunk.
One man decided that the job should pay $150,000 a year, said Green. Two others changed their minds. And one person announced on Friday that she had planned to spend six months of the year up north while doing the job remotely.
Created in 1986, at the height of the disease's death toll, AIDS Help is today one of the Florida Keys' best known nonprofits. Early on, the founders had a zeal for fundraising, coming up with what is now a bona fide Key West tradition, the King and Queen Coronation of Fantasy Fest every October.
AIDS Help also benefits every year from the SMART Ride, a 165-mile Miami-to-Key West bike ride in which each rider is required to raise at least $1,250. All proceeds benefit agencies like AIDS Help in the Keys and South Florida.
The finalists Saturday were veteran nonprofit leaders.
Leto is the director of Guardian Ad Litem, a nonprofit she helped build in the late 1980s that represents children from abusive homes who end up in the legal system. She was hired in 1990. Leto said that those who run nonprofits must stay active and make a lot of face-to-face contact in the community. She also advised that nonprofits can no longer rely solely on government funding, and must seek individual endowments.
"I can be very tenacious and very direct," Leto told the crowd. "It serves me very well. I'm a go-getter. I'm not lazy by any means. I want to rock right now; I'm telling myself, don't do that. It's really hard for me to hold still."
AIDS Help provides case-managed health care, affordable housing and housing assistance, food, counseling, referral and support services for HIV-infected residents of the Florida Keys.
"It's a single point-of-entry," said Pais, when it was his turn to speak. "You're supposed to walk in that door and get everything from information to love. And if you're dying, we are by your side. That is what the agency is about and I hope it will remain that way."
Pais, a former city commissioner who was on the first volunteer committee for AIDS Help in 1984 before it was incorporated, is currently deputy director of the organization.
"I know every single department; I've written grants for them," he said.
Pais said that as director he would "re-establish confidentiality for the client and for the staff," saying that breaking such confidentiality is illegal.
"I know there are people in this room who can say that they've had their confidentiality broken," Pais said. "Twenty-six years we've been doing this. People trust us and we want to stay that way."
Sanders, director of client services at AIDS Help for the last eight years, got the last word during the candidate event, during which each person had five minutes to speak about whatever he or she desired and then take a couple of questions from the audience.
Sanders kept her comments brief, saying that were she to get the job it would provide continuity for the staff and community "without missing a beat."
"Robert [Walker] has built us an incredible foundation that we can build the rest of our organization with," said Sanders. "Times are changing. Everybody knows things are changing now."
Sanders said she would continue the same kind of "compassionate leadership" that Walker demonstrated as executive director.
When asked by Derrick Traylor, director of education for AIDS Help, to give an example of her work, Sanders recalled how the nonprofit had once helped a homeless man who had fallen off his bicycle and was treated for a broken hip.
"He never knew he had HIV," Sanders said. "He was pretty close to dying. He was a fellow that kind of lived at Higgs Beach and had been in the country for a very long time."
But with no documents to prove he was a citizen, the man couldn't receive Social Security or housing benefits. AIDS Help changed that and offered him a safe home.
"We were able to give him the last year of his life in the best place he had ever lived," Sanders said.
As of Sunday evening, it was not known who would fill Walker's shoes.