The battle against apathy

AIDS activists retool message and priorities

The battle against AIDS is far from over.

Twenty years ago, when the disease first hit the U.S. and many in the entertainment community, imminent death was the only prognosis. For a generation, funerals were a daily fact of life. But today, the red ribbons have come off as life-prolonging treatments have been discovered and utilized. While the Third World faces unimaginable devastation from the disease, in the U.S. and other Western nations, the original sense of urgency surrounding the illness has dissipated.

AIDS-activist orgs have had to adjust. “The AIDS landscape has really changed from the ’80s to the ’90s from people dying from AIDS to living with AIDS,” says John L. Gile, exec director of Project Angel Food, a West Hollywood-based nonprofit that delivers freshly prepared meals to the homebound ill.

In the early days of the epidemic, an estimated 300 people died per month died in Los Angeles County alone, now that figure is 300 per year.

Today, an estimated 54,000 to 57,000 are living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles County, with more than 1 million infected nationwide. As Dan Moriarty, Aids Project Los Angeles (APLA) director of development says, people in the work force do not often see evidence of the disease.

“It’s very challenging to keep the general public aware, and that includes the entertainment community, about the continuing existence of HIV/AIDS in the community,” says Moriarity.

APLA’s constituency lives at or just above the federal poverty level. “The numbers of people who are being served by APLA are very high and there continues to be new cases,” he adds.

APLA benefits from a number of special events, such as AIDS Walk LA. Moriarty notes that unlike the ’80s and ’90s, it remains a challenge to continue to get all important, visibly supportive celebrities. However, he’s quick to credit those who gave pep talks to 25,000 AIDS walkers in the rain this year: Hal Sparks, Eric McCormack, Doris Roberts, Nia Vardalos, among them, but he contends his org needs more support from celebs and studio heads.

He lauds thesp Jennifer Love Hewitt for hosting a benefit Academy Award viewing party this year, which helped put the event on the map, critical in the eyes of corporate and individual donors.

“We have to continually refresh our donor base, which is why somebody like Jennifer Love Hewitt’s a help. The young Hollywood community were children when the older community saw their friends die,” reminds Moriarty.

That truth of AIDS as a fatal disease is not often seen in everyday life or in the media.

Critics contend that HIV/AIDS is now portrayed, particularly in drug company ads, as a beatable disease. Ads for HIV-related medicines have shown hot-looking men in particularly vigorous scenarios, such as mountain climbing.

“It’s a life-changing, emotionally overwhelming disease, although people are finding a way to manage through medicine, that doesn’t make it a manageable disease,” argues Here! Network’s co-founder and CEO Paul Colichman, a longtime activist. “I’ve buried too many friends and have seen how they die to know there was nothing pretty about it. It’s not a joy ride. It’s not just two guys climbing the mountain.”

Here! backs many AIDS-related orgs, including Project Angel Food.

Colichman contends that charitable groups are ill-served by the media’s portrayal of the disease.

“Misrepresentation leads to lack of concern. ‘Why should we give money?’ donors ask,” says Colichman.

Additionally, the underlying message from these ads seems to be the disease is easily surmountable. Complacency has replaced fear in the public discourse. Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back this assertion. Last year, there were 40,000 new cases of HIV infection, many of those caused by people who were not aware they were infected.

With the battle to beat HIV/AIDS off the front pages, donor fatigue appears to have set in. Although, as Project Angel Food’s Gile notes, “Donor fatigue always impacts grassroots activist orgs. It’s a continuing challenge to not only foster new donors but also to keep them connected to the org.

“We tell our story very accurately, we feed sick people, and people can experience it firsthand by either working in the kitchen or delivering meals to clients,” explains Gile.

Because of the stigma still surrounding the disease, Project Angel Food’s vans are unmarked and volunteers deliver the prepared meals anonymously.

But despite the climate, Hollywood has made an effort. Gile estimates that entertainment industry donations to the charity have been in excess of $10 million since the group’s inception 13 years ago.

The org’s annual Angel Awards (scheduled for Aug. 20), plus its annual Divine Design are two of the many high-profile events in L.A. that benefit AIDS-related charities.

APLA draws funds from the annual AIDS Walk, as well its annual Summer Party held on the Paramount lot. Known for its star-studded family day, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation has donated more than $30 million to pediatric AIDS related research over the last 15 years.

And Elton John’s Oscar night bash, supporting the Elton John AIDS Foundation, is one of Hollywood’s most glittering fundraisers.

But keeping the momentum and funds going towards AIDS related causes remains tough.

As APLA’s Moriarty says, “When you go after the donor community these days, you have to shake the trees in very many ways.”

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