Eat (with) your heart out

Pay it forward: More than 100 restaurants will participate in this year’s Dining Out for Life benefit on Thursday, April 26. Twenty percent of each bill will be donated the the Western North Carolina AIDS Project. Courtesy of WNCAP
Pay it forward: More than 100 restaurants will participate in this year’s Dining Out for Life benefit on Thursday, April 26. Twenty percent of each bill will be donated the the Western North Carolina AIDS Project. Courtesy of WNCAP

Due to federal budget cuts and a consistent demand for its services, the Western North Carolina AIDS Project will have a full plate this year, according to its executive director, Jeff Bachar.

And Bachar wants to see community members with full plates of their own during this year's Dining Out for Life fundraiser on Thursday, April 26. Throughout the day, more than 100 area restaurants will donate 20 percent of their gross sales to WNCAP, a public-health nonprofit that provides free HIV-related services in 18 WNC counties.

"The epidemic is still here,” Bachar notes, adding that there’s still need for WNCAP’s programs to grow. The organization averages eight-to-10 new intakes each month, so expanding services, like client support and prevention education, remains a crucial objective.

"We're trying to reach more of the population in Western North Carolina,” Bachar says. “But with a small budget like ours, it's not enough to stretch those messages across the region with intensity.”

Dining Out for Life, celebrating its 10th year in the area, remains the organization's most important annual fundraiser. Last year, the benefit raised more than $138,000 for WNCAP.

Million mark in reach

This year’s benefit might achieve more than a notable anniversary, event coordinator Harry Brown explains. When Asheville first participated in Dining Out for Life 10 years ago, the event raised $21,000. Every year since, the event and the money it raises have grown. The first nine years netted a total of $857,000.

"You can ask anybody, I never set goals — but I do like to see us get at least one dollar more than we did the previous year," Brown jokes. But do the math, and a potential goal suggests itself: If WNCAP raises $143,000 this year, he’ll be able to tout the event as a million-dollar fundraiser.

During the first local Dining Out for Life event, Brown recalls, about 20 restaurants participated, and all of them were in Asheville. This year, there will also be participating eateries in Arden, Black Mountain, Brevard, Flat Rock, Hendersonville, Maggie Valley, Saluda, Waynesville, Weaverville and Woodfin. (For a full list of restaurants, visit http://avl.mx/ev).

Spreading the word

In addition to the chance to dine for the benefit of others, diners will be greeted by a Dining Out for Life “ambassador.”

"These ambassadors are key to making this event a success," Brown says. "I wish I could clone them. They're all so great." The volunteers, numbering around 200, explain the event and answer questions about WNCAP’s work.

WNCAP Board of Directors President Pam Siekman will be one of them, working the Corner Kitchen for breakfast and the Admiral for supper.

"Western North Carolina has such a strong social conscience. Year after year, the community really steps up for us," she says.

Of course, some of the diners are simply out to eat and unaware of the event, but Siekman has noticed a growing number of intentional participants. "I'll still come across people who don't realize that it's Dining Out for Life, but more and more people say they come out because it's Dining Out for Life,” she says. “Sometimes people can't afford to write a check to us, but they can always afford to eat.”

Finding hope

The event is full of good eats and good fun, but Siekman and others volunteer in remembrance of grave losses that have mounted through the years.

"I've been a part of this cause in my life for the past 20 years because I've had friends, close friends, who have died from AIDS," she says. "Even though people diagnosed with AIDS and HIV live longer” today than they used to, she says, “they still live a compromised life because after that diagnosis, their life changes forever."

And though medicines and treatments do help people with AIDS live longer lives, the casualty count remains high. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 17,774 people with AIDS died in the U.S. in 2009.

"People are definitely still dying from this, and we have lost clients the last couple of years," Brown says. WNCAP’s case log is growing, in part because “a lot of people are moving here who are HIV-positive."

"You never like to see this kind of business grow — we want to grow the other way," Brown says. "But as long as there is a need, we're going to be here."

— Send your local health-and-wellness news and tips to Caitlin Byrd at cbyrd@mountainx.com, or call 251-1333, ext. 140.

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