(pictured above: Sammie Gray is a longtime ACS supporter.)
AIDS Care Services is asking those who support HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention to put their money where their mouths are.
More than 20 individuals and groups across the city are set to host Dining with Friends events in January and February to benefit ACS, which serves nearly 500 local residents and their families annually. Hosts are encouraged to put their own flare on the dinners, which serve as ACS’s signature fundraiser.
“They can have any kind of party that they would like to,” said ACS President Jesse Duncan. “It can be a themed party or just a dinner with a select group of friends. The only thing that we ask is that they ask their friends to bring a donation to AIDS Care Services.”
In keeping with a decade-long tradition, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church is again supporting Dining with Friends with a Pie Auction. The church has a long history of working with HIV/AIDS issues, and was among the first faith communities in the area to conduct funerals for victims of the disease.
“It’s really important to support AIDS Care Services and other organizations like it because the message still needs to get out,” said Rev. Lawrence Womack, the church’s rector. “… You can never talk about HIV and AIDS enough, because there is still a significant stigma around the disease, and people are still reluctant to say that’s what their relative died of. We never can talk about it enough and educate people about it enough so the people that do happen to contract HIV don’t have to hide it and can get the help that they need.”
Over the past two decades, people’s attitudes about HIV/AIDS have changed significantly, as has the prognosis for those who contract the disease, thanks to advances in medicine, Duncan said, and the work of ACS, whose primarily purpose was once supporting people who were dying of the disease, has changed as a result. The agency is marking its 20th year with a refocusing effort that will embrace ACS’s storied history and putting “a little swing back into our old style” to allow the agency to remain relevant in the decades to come, he said.
“Our purpose has changed to restoring people’s lives so that they can actually have lives of opportunity,” Duncan stated. “…We realized that we needed to rebrand ourselves and remind people that we are here and we’re still serving the original purpose, but we also have a greater purpose now, which is restoring people’s lives.”
Those who contribute to this year’s Dining with Friends will be given tickets to a free Roaring 20’s themed Grand Dessert Finale at the Old Salem Visitor Center on Saturday, Feb. 8. After a hiatus of several years, ACS has revived its tradition of ending with a finale event, in hopes of rekindling the sense of community that it once fostered among local HIV/AIDS advocates, Duncan said.
“As we celebrate our 20th anniversary of services, we decided that on some things, we’re moving forward, and on some things, we’re looking back and saying, ‘This is what works,’” he remarked. “We need to remind the community that we’re still here and there are still people who need us, and we need to show the community that we have the support of the community.”
A handful of local restaurants have agreed to contribute treats for the Dessert Finale. Sweet Potatoes Co-owners Vivian Joiner and Stephanie Tyson are among those who have committed to support the Feb. 8 event with enough desserts to feed 200 attendees.
“It’s real important to give back and give back to such a worthy cause of (helping) people in needs, people at their most vulnerable,” Joiner said of their motivation to contribute to the finale. “We’ve committed since we opened that we would give to things that really … touched the basic need of people to be able to sustain themselves. This is an organization that reaches out to a lot of people in that need.”
The issue of HIV/AIDS hit close to home for Joiner and Tyson, her longtime partner.
“Stephanie and I have lost a lot of friends over the years, especially in the early ’80’s and ’90’s, we lost a lot of friends to AIDS,” Joiner said. “We’re blessed that we don’t have any close family members that have succumbed to it but we have lost a lot of friends to it.”
Union Baptist Church Deacon Sammie Gray, one of ACS’s longtime supporters, has attended many Dining with Friends culminating events since helping to found the AIDS Ministry at his church in 1996, and said he is happy to see the Dessert Finale revived this year.
“That’s a very good idea,” he said of bringing the event back. “It’s just fellowship. You get to talk to other people that’s working with it and just swap ideas and see what you can come up with.”
The Union Baptist AIDS Ministry has supported ACS’s fundraising efforts since the ministry’s inception, said Gray, who lost his son, actor Samuel D. Gray, to the disease in the mid-1990’s.
“We do anything that AIDS Care Services calls on us to do,” said the retired RJ Reynolds employee. “We have had Dining with Friends dinners, but most of the time, we just raise money.”
Gray is leading a penny campaign to raise money for the organization this year. He and his 15-member AIDS ministry team will be soliciting donations for ACS every Sunday from Jan. 26 – Feb. 9. The ministry raised $900 in 2013; this year, Gray is hoping to top $1000. Although conditions have improved for people living with HIV/AIDS, the work of ACS is still greatly needed in the community, Gray believes.
“A lot of people are ignorant about the disease and a lot of people think they’ve got all these new medicines now, that it ain’t out there, but it’s out there, and it’s strong,” he said.
Duncan praised the work that is going on at Union Baptist, which he says is one of the few predominantly black congregations that has dared to tackle the issue.
“Union Baptist definitely recognizes the importance of an AIDS ministry, and they recognize the importance of prevention,” he said. “I wish all congregations would recognize the need, that there has to be a discussion about that in order to keep the community safe.”
The Pie Auction will be held on Saturday, Feb. 15 at St. Anne’s, 2690 Fairlawn Drive. For more information or to get involved, call 336-768-0174.