Beyond the Ribbon

Posted: November 21st, 2010 | News | No Comments

A candlelight vigil in honor of those lost to and affected by HIV/AIDS is part of the annual Tree of Life ceremony, sponsored by Mama’s Kitchen and Village Hillcrest. (Courtesy Mama’s Kitchen)


“Todos Unidos” art exhibit (depicting the struggles of living with HIV/AIDS in the Latino/a community)
WHEN: Dec. 1
WHERE: Being Alive learning center, 3940 Fourth Ave., Suite 140, Hillcrest
INFO: Shannon Wagner, (619) 291-1400, ext. 317;

A. Brad Truax Award Ceremony
WHEN: 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Dec. 1
WHERE: LGBT Community Center, 3909 Centre St., Hillcrest

Tree of Life ceremony
WHEN: 6 to 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Village Hillcrest complex, 3965 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest
COST: Memorial ornaments are $15 or two for $25
INFO: (619) 233-6262 or

Community, HIV/AIDS officials concerned by cavalier attitudes, hope to infuse World AIDS Day with added gravitas

By Dave Schwab|GSD Reporter

As San Diego gears up for the 22nd annual World AIDS Day ob¬servance and related events on Dec. 1, local HIV/AIDS service providers are expressing concern that complacency is again setting in, and that not enough is being done to promote HIV/AIDS pre-vention and education.

“One in five gay men having sex with men are HIV positive—that’s a staggering statistic,” said Terry Cunningham, chief of the County Health and Human Services Agency’s HIV, STD and Hepatitis branch, noting the results of a recent CDC study.

Cunningham said statistics also indicate that the HIV/AIDS toll in San Diego County is remaining stable, when it should be improving.

“The number of infections and the number of deaths is pretty much holding about the same, and there’s no reason for that,” he said. “Thirty years into this epidemic we know what causes it, how it’s transmitted, how to take care of it. We just can’t stop people from engaging in high-risk sex in order to break that chain of infection.”

The battle against the disease, which has claimed more than 25 million lives worldwide since 1981, will be commemorated on World AIDS Day, Wednesday, Dec. 1. San Diegans will observe the day and remember friends and loved ones lost to the disease at several events that day. The annual Dr. A. Brad Truax Award Ceremony, 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at San Diego LGBT Community Center, honors the outstanding efforts of San Diegans involved in the struggle against the disease. The 19th annual Tree of Life lighting ceremony, 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Village Hillcrest, will honor those lost to and affected by HIV/AIDS. Guests may purchase a heart-shaped ornament for $15, which can be personalized and placed on the towering tree in memory of someone lost to the disease. Music will be provided by the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus.

Asked about the status of AIDS in 2010 and progress made in countering the epidemic during his 12-year tenure as head of the county’s HIV/AIDS office, Cunningham said it’s been a case of two steps forward and one step back.

“With the advent of antiretroviral drugs in 1996 that changed everything,” Cunningham said. “People began to feel better, live longer. There weren’t as many side effects from the drugs and progress since then with the new generations of drugs has gotten to the point where it’s almost a chronic, controllable disease—but it hasn’t gotten to that point yet.”

Unfortunately, Cunningham said, too many people are acting as if medical advances have made the disease “manageable.”

“There’s still a great deal of risk-taking going on and people acting as though, ‘Well, if I do get this disease, all I have to do is take this pill and I’ll be fine.’”

Many people, especially the younger generation of gay men, don’t realize that the current HIV/ AIDS drug therapies—though a huge improvement over AZT and earlier, more toxic medications—are far a cure-all, Cunningham said.

The annual Tree of Life lighting at Village Hillcrest. (Courtesy Mama's Kitchen)

“Upwards of 30 to 40 percent of people taking (AIDS) drugs can’t tolerate them in some form or another,” he said. “We’ve made incredible strides … but that’s the problem. You don’t see the people walking around so deathly ill that … were really signposts that the disease was amongst us—and (still) is.”

On World AIDS Day the county’s HIV, STD and Hepatitis branch of Public Health Services will sponsor the 21st annual Dr. A. Brad Truax Awards ceremony, named for the man who chaired the first advisory board on HIV/ AIDS for San Diego County.

Awards will acknowledge contributions in HIV education, prevention, counseling, testing, care, treatment and policy development. The event is free and includes food, refreshments and an art exhibit. The ceremony will be followed by a candlelit walk from the LGBT Center, 3909 Centre St., to the Tree of Life Lighting ceremony at Village Hillcrest. Funds raised from the purchase of ornaments benefit Mama’s Kitchen, San Diego’s only countywide meal delivery service for men, women and children affected by AIDS and cancer.

Alberto Cortés, executive director of Mama’s Kitchen, said the event grows in significance each year, offering attendees an opportunity to “create awareness of the challenges that AIDS still (poses to) our community.”

Cortés said events such as the tree lighting become more impor¬tant as “the issue of AIDS gets less attention,” providing a chance to mourn those lost to the disease, such as Truax, while celebrating “the people and efforts that have been made in response to this epidemic.”

New this year at the Tree of Life lighting ceremony will be the premiere of a 20th anniversary video on World AIDS Day.

World AIDS Day is particularly poignant for Kim Sontag, a special events coordinator at Mama’s Kitchen, who has lost two close friends to the disease.

“My friend who died in 1995 didn’t get to the HIV portion, he just went straight into AIDS-related pneumonia and died in his mid-30s,” Sontag recalled. “My other friend died two years ago. I visited him in the hospital until it got to the point where he wouldn’t allow us to visit him anymore.”

Sontag said her second friend’s passing was a decidedly more traumatic experience. “His family disapproved of his lifestyle and they wouldn’t let his friends take care of anything,” she said. “That was difficult, watching his family, who he’d been estranged from, step in.”

Those cherished relationships, Sontag said, led to her involvement at Mama’s Kitchen, as well as her participation in humanitarian causes such as fighting poverty, hunger and AIDS in Africa.

“I just know that I need to be involved and educated,” she said. “It’s not a pleasant thing to talk about, but it’s important.”

World AIDS Day also holds a special meaning for Hillcrest restaurateur Chris Shaw, owner of Urban Mo’s, Baja Betty’s and Gossip Grill.

“As a predominantly gay restaurant, it has a bigger meaning for us,” Shaw said. “Every year we give out red ribbons to all the customers who come in that day, and all of the staff wears red.”

Shaw said World AIDS Day is an important tradition because it serves as an important reminder.

“It brings awareness that it’s still out there and that people need to practice good judgment,” Shaw said. “Sometimes we tend to forget. We’ve got to reeducate our community, and keep on educating the younger ones.”

A celebrant at last year’s Tree of Life ceremony hangs a personalized ornament on the tree. (Courtesy Mama’s Kitchen)

In commemoration of World AIDS Day, local restaurants Baja Betty’s, Urban Mo’s, Gossip Grill, Kous Kous, Martinis Above Fourth and Pizza Nova will be donating a portion of their proceeds to Mama’s Kitchen on the eve¬ning of Dec. 1 for those who attend the tree lighting ceremony.

Shannon Wagner, executive director of Being Alive San Diego, a nonprofit service provider run by and for people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, said her organization will be observing World AIDS Day by holding an open house at their Hillcrest learning center, 3940 Fourth Ave., Suite 140 in Hillcrest. The open house will display artwork by people with HIV/AIDS ranging in age from 20 to 35.

“These young gentlemen have painted these murals depicting their journeys coming out of the shadow of the disease,” Wagner said. “It is something we’re doing specifically for World AIDS Day but we will probably have them up for two or three months.”

Wagner said the observance is becoming more important than ever because “people have kind of forgotten about AIDS,” adding that younger LGBT people haven’t had to endure seeing their friends die quickly due to therapeutic drugs that aren’t as effective—or as easily obtained— s many believe.

“In America we are fortunate we have protease inhibitors (a class of drugs used to treat or prevent infection by viruses), but only a small percentage—3 to 5 percent—have private insurance or VA benefits that will pay for AIDS drugs,” she said. “And an average medication regime, nothing extraordinary, will cost $20,000 a year. So most people have to live at or below the poverty level to qualify for” AIDS drug programs, she said.

“People aren’t as worried; they aren’t as afraid” of the disease, Wagner lamented. Meanwhile, she said, “There is not a lot of (government) money for education and prevention programs and I don’t see anything happening to change that anytime soon.”

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