In 1981, Gary Costa was a young man living in Los Angeles, when dozens of friends and acquaintances started getting sick and dying. The AIDS epidemic was snowballing, and Costa was frightened but determined. He researched everything he could about the disease to protect himself and spread the “safe sex” message in the gay community. He became a community educator and eventually began leading nonprofit organizations serving the LGBT and HIV/AIDS communities in California. Today, he is executive director of Golden Rainbow, which provides emergency assistance, education, financial aid and affordable housing to those living with HIV/AIDS in Southern Nevada.
You’re a transplant from California. Tell us about your time there and what brought you to Las Vegas.
I was born and raised on a dairy farm in the central San Joaquin valley town of Hanford, Calif. I was the middle of 11 children. I knew from a young age I didn’t fit in to the farming life. The day I turned 18, I was out of there and headed south toward Los Angeles. I’ve lived all over the state, but a majority of my adult life in Southern California, most recently in Palm Springs. My partner, Stephen, landed a great job with Zappos seven years ago and he relocated here first. We commuted back and forth on the weekends for almost three years until I was offered the position at Golden Rainbow. I still maintain a home in Palm Springs. It’s my weekend getaway from my typical 70-hour work weeks. I love Las Vegas, but California will always be home.
How many are on your team and what is your management style?
I have three incredible staff members who provide direct services to clients and I oversee a core group of 50-plus volunteers and interns. When given the opportunity to build my own team like I have at Golden Rainbow, I am more a consultative type of manager, allowing everyone involved to provide feedback and suggestions in establishing best practices. I only surround myself with people who are as passionate about the work we do as I am, or else it just wouldn’t work.
Do you have any news or upcoming events for the organization?
We have two major events coming up. On June 24, we’re producing the 32nd annual Ribbon of Life show at SLS Las Vegas, featuring custom production numbers from performers from most all of the major shows on the Strip. The show is always original and surprising, and is a major source of our annual operating income.
Then, July 24 is our Dining Out For Life — a national campaign to raise funds for local AIDS service organizations. All funds raised in Southern Nevada benefit Golden Rainbow. Restaurant owners donate a portion of the day’s proceeds to help fund our housing and emergency assistance programs. This year, most all of the restaurants in the Arts District and Downtown will participate. It’s a great way to meet up with friends, help out a worthy cause, and support our local businesses.
How can members of the public volunteer or contribute to your organization?
Our two largest fundraisers utilize hundreds of volunteers, and we are always seeking individuals to help us with planning and preparation, as well as day-of-event activities. Support the events by purchasing tickets to the show and eating out at one of the participating restaurants. Links to volunteer applications and information about our fundraising events can be found on our website.
What’s the biggest issue facing Southern Nevada?
We’re facing a public health emergency with the rapidly increasing sexually transmitted disease rates among young adults. We are among the top in the nation for reported syphilis and chlamydia transmission rates. These once easily treatable conditions are becoming drug-resistant and harder to eradicate. Left untreated, they will cause blindness, brain damage and reproductive problems in both males and females, and have been directly linked to a drastic increase of stillbirths. These diseases do not discriminate. Everyone is at risk. Not enough is being done locally on this front but I’m personally involved in efforts to change that.
If you could change one thing about Southern Nevada, what would it be?
The traffic. That may seem ironic coming from someone who has spent a majority of his life in Los Angeles, but I just can’t get over how bad the drivers are here, and how the traffic signals are not synced to better regulate traffic flow. We need to invest in light rail systems for residents and tourists.
What’s your favorite place to people watch or explore in Las Vegas?
The Arts District and Downtown. When friends and family travel here, I always make sure to peel them away from the glitz and glitter of the Strip for at least one full day and introduce them to the area. There is so much to see and do and eat all within walking distance. And when it comes to people watching, there are some things on Fremont Street that you just can’t unsee, but that’s the beauty of it. To me, that’s the real Las Vegas.
What is the best business advice you’ve received?
“Just because we’ve always done things a certain way, doesn’t mean you need to stick with that. Put your own personal stamp on every project you inherit, as long as you are doing so with the purest of intentions.”
What is your dream job outside of your current field?
Working with homeless animals. I am the proud daddy of Alton, a mixed breed terrier. He’s with me at the office every day and is so beloved by staff and clients that he is even listed on our website as a staff member. It’s hard to think he was just days away from being euthanized because of overcrowding at the animal shelter. It is heartbreaking to know that hundreds of thousands of stray animals are killed each year due to overpopulation. Working on a project to address this issue would be very rewarding.
If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would it be?
The Azores Islands of Portugal. It’s where all of my grandparents are from and it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. I could definitely see myself retiring there on the island of Terceira, where many of my relatives still reside.
Whom do you admire?
Bill Gates. Here is a man who has more money than God, but you never see him flaunting an extravagant lifestyle. Instead, he uses his wealth to help make to world a better place. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation focuses on improving people’s health and well-being, helping individuals lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty so they can access the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. How can you not admire a man like that?
What is something that people might not know about you?
I do not know how to swim. I went on a Caribbean cruise once and it was terrifying. I must have drowned in a past life or something. My great-grandfather was a commercial fisherman and was lost at sea, so perhaps a little bit of his tragedy was passed down to me.