Richmond World AIDS Day 2014 offers support and joy to those effected and affected
Peggy Holt stood near the entrance of the First Unitarian Universalist church and gasped for breath, almost in tears. She explained the hand made quilts laid out for folks to see as they walked into Richmond’s 2014 World AIDS Day celebration.
“We do this to educate, support, nurture, love, and help these people with the stigma of HIV/AIDS,” said Holt, who lost her brother to AIDS in 1995 and has helped with Richmond’s Renewal Projects, a local group who works with HIV/AIDS effected and affected populations, ever since.
“My brother died a horrible death,” said Holt, wiping her eyes.
This somber attitude was present at RVA World Aids Day 2014, but it was accompanied by feelings of joy as well.
“More people are living successfully with HIV/AIDS; it’s not so much the death sentence it was in the 80’s and 90’s,” said Jim Burns, a tower of a man who said he’s been involved with World Aids Day events since its inception 26 years ago.
Burns said those early years were dark, and while today’s modern medicine has improved the way people live with HIV/AIDS, it’s still important to look back. “To remember the people we’ve lost, but also to come together for awareness of the illness and the event.”
About 100 people filed into the newly renovated FUU chapel, and the night’s ceremony began. The night was filled with song, prayer, and remembrance. People shared stories, and the history of the illness was told before the audience.
Burns gave the introduction for the evening’s events, and said 2015’s theme was focus, partner, and achieve.
“We’re looking to make sure we have an AIDS-free next generation – we have four or five generations we must see through this horrible epidemic, so we are here to help start an AIDS-free generation,” said Burns. “But also help and assist everyone who’s currently suffering with the disease, and those who are gone.”
Councilwoman Cynthia I. Newbille, from Richmond’s 7th District, spoke at the event. She said she grew up and worked in the same district she now runs, and it’s also one of the highest localities for new HIV infections in the state.
“The stigma attached to that unintentional infection rate has increased so significantly in communities like the one I represent,” said Newbille. She said communities like hers lost too many people to a disease that was avoidable and treatable.
“So for me, it’s even more insidious – we’re lulled into this state of complacency.”
She echoed a sentiment of which many spoke – the expense associated with treatment, and other boundaries people face once they test positive.
“We don’t have to have this level of infection around this condition in our community, but it’s going to take a lot of effort,” she said, before thanking those in attendance for their work.
Robert Higginson, a nurse practitioner who works in MCV’s HIV/AIDS clinic, gave specific numbers about the disease, saying his office gets about five calls a week with people reporting new infections. 1/3 of those new infections are people under the age of 25, and 60% are under 35.
“The people getting infected are those who lived around HIV their entire lives… those of us over 50 remember a point in our lives when there wasn’t HIV,” said Higginson. “People living around it their entire lives know how to not get infected, but they don’t practice that.”
Rodney Lofton, Executive Director for the Renewal Projects, spoke some about his history with infection. He was diagnosed with HIV 21 years ago this December at the age of 25.
“The number assigned to me was 1277597,” said Lofton, recalling the name and address of the NYC clinic where he tested positive.
He spoke about the lack of medical knowledge and treatments back then, and about the support he received from his family and friends.
“Coming out as a young, gay, black man in the capital of the Confederacy, you can imagine there was some challenges,” he said. “But all those brothers that I came out with in 1985 and 86 are no longer here, so now I share their stories… For some of them, they died in shame.”
People from the audience then shared personal stories about their connections to HIV/AIDS – family members lost, people medical workers and clergy treated and lost, or past lovers and significant others.
Richmond City Councilman for the 5th district, Parker Agelasto, also honored the event with a proclamation supporting the day. (read more about the proclamation here) Burns read the proclamation before the audience as part of the ceremony.
Burns, who was living in NYC when the outbreak first occurred in the early 80′s, said he lost 63 friends to the disease. Even more devastatingly, he lost his brother.
In a sign of support beyond his life-long devotion to battling HIV/AIDS, Burns got the AIDS ribbon tattooed on his hand.
“I didn’t want to have to put a button every day,” said Burns. “I wanted to make sure I saw it every day when I got up.”
Richmond’s recent history with HIV/AIDS put it at the top of the list for new infections in 2013. It’s an illness which continues to effect much of the community.
Richmond Police Chief Tarasovic attended the event, as well as RPD’s LGBTQ Liaison, Maj. Odetta Johnson.
“Any time we have an opportunity to show our respect for those who were lost but not forgotten, we should be there and we should be a part of it,” said Johnson. “It’s important to us; it’s important to our residents.”
As the event drew to a close, people wondered back in to the church’s main foyer. The hand made quilts stood as a stark reminder of those touched by HIV/AIDS, and closer inspection showed a detail which easily tugged at heart strings – tiny felt white butterflies dotted a few of the patches.
Holt explained the butterflies were attached to the patches when the person who made them had passed on. Holt made a patch for her brother at her first retreat last year.
“Next time, we’ll put a white butterfly on his,” she said.
“We can get to zero, but its going to take some work. Five people in Richmond every week is five too many.”December 2, 2016
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