In 1981, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a report about a rare pneumonia that struck down five young, previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles. Five years later, the Asheville-based Western North Carolina AIDS Project formed, dedicated to prevention, education and assisting those living with the disease.
And in the early 1990s, Dr. Poly Ross helped treat a young, HIV-positive woman who had the same pneumonia reported in Los Angeles. Observing how the case was handled and how fearful even hospital staff were in interacting with the patient, Ross went on to co-found WNC Community Health Services, which provides clinical care for HIV and AIDS patients.
On Sept. 24, WNCAP honors both the 30-year anniversary of the virus in the United States and the people like Ross who have donated their time, talents and resources to help those living with it: The organization's Raise Your Hand Benefit Auction features an elegant sit-down dinner, an auction of such items as paintings, antiques and jewelry, and Ross as both keynote speaker and recipient of a "Works of Heart" award.
"She's an amazing woman," says WNCAP board member Pam Siekman, noting Ross's contributions to the community and her extensive experience in HIV/AIDS research and care.
Siekman also says of the decades since those first cases in Los Angeles, "It's hard to believe it's been that long."
The biggest development since the 1980s, she notes, is new medication that can save lives. But the drugs' high cost can prove a major challenge for patients. To help, WNCAP administers the federally and state funded AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which subsidizes those costs. The local nonprofit also provides case-management services to 460 patients, helping them navigate the complicated labyrinth of medical and financial support they need.
However, funding for WNCAP's services has been hit hard by the economy, Siekman reports. In the last year, legislators at both the federal and state levels have delayed ADAP funding, endangering the lives of those who depend on it, she explains.
"People don't realize the impact. When you have HIV and stop taking your meds for two weeks, it changes your body." And that puts patients' lives in jeopardy, Siekman explains.
To better communicate the urgency to legislators, WNCAP recently hired a policy and advocacy coordinator.
Private donations and grant funding have also been hit, Siekman continues. "This is a very difficult time," she says. "Asheville is such a wonderful community for nonprofits, but we're all struggling with this. People are holding on to their pocket books a little bit tighter."
And despite the medical advances, Siekman reports that the stigma surrounding the disease continues unabated.
"For every step we take forward, we continue to take steps backwards. It's pretty amazing that this is still the most stigmatized disease of our time. The stigma is still very, very real and hurts a lot of people," she explains.
To combat misconceptions about the disease, WNCAP runs a number of education and outreach programs. It relies on big turnouts at the annual auction to keep those services going. One of the most important fundraisers of the year for the organization, Raise Your Hand is second only to the organization's annual Dining Out For Life event, which raised about $115,000 in April, according to Siekman.
"We're hoping for a sellout this year. … We know how to throw a great party, and it's going to be a lot of fun. If you buy something in the auction, it's a nice way to make a donation and take home a treasure," she says.
Siekman adds that the dinner features fare by chefs from local restaurants — Corner Kitchen, Vinnie's, Bouchon and Fiore’s Ristorante Toscana. "We do our best to put something on really good," says Siekman.
And the artwork donations are more than just beautiful, she continues.
"Maybe if you take a painting home and put it on your wall, you'll be able to look at it and think 'I made a difference in someone's life.'"
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or firstname.lastname@example.org.