Floridians with HIV and their advocates are hoping to find community, friendship and a place at the table this holiday season.
150 people are expected for Thanksgiving dinner at the First Presbyterian church. Adonica Gieger is organizing the evening’s event. It’s their Canopy Connection dinner for HIV positive guests and their families. And this year Anne Westall, one of the original event organizers, says over the years, the guest list has grown.
“Keep in mind, 20 years ago, Aids had a different face. We had a very small attendance. People were uneasy about getting out and announcing by virtue of the fact that they were coming to the meal that sort of announced that they were HIV positive. So, as things changed, we began to get more and more. Again, as the face of Aids changed then the face of our dinners changed,” Westall says.
John Padgett is one of the dinner’s attendees. He’s a peer advocate with Big Bend Cares, which provides education and support for people impacted by Aids. Padgett says he’s most looking forward to the stuffing, but also the chance to continue build community.
“It’s the connection with other people and just the fellowship that comes with it,” Padgett says.
And Gieger says that’s what she and other organizers had hoped for--the chance to help people living with HIV, who in many cases still face a stigma, find a feeling of connection with the community, their friends and their families.
“Well, the main purpose and I don’t mean to be trite is to have a wonderful time. Some of the people who join us for this meal, some of our neighbors, we’ve been seeing year after year for a long time and it’s really a joy to see them. It’s a joy to see that they are back again,” Gieger says.
But what about that growing guest list? In Florida HIV rates have been on the rise in recent years and the state is among the top in the country for HIV infection. But Charlie Adams with Big Bend Cares says that’s not necessarily the reason for increased participation at the Canopy Connection dinner, especially since local rates are fairly steady. He says more people could be coming for a number of reasons—more people were able to make the time, or find transportation, or maybe fear of stigma is lessening.
“God, I hope so. Any reduction in stigma for whatever reason however it comes would be welcomed. The South is the South and there’s a lot that goes along with that. But here we are in a church and we’re serving people who are affected by HIV and Aids from all these different counties and everybody seems to understand that it’s okay and that’s why we’re here and that seems to signal to me at least that there are people out there who are fighting the stigma. Whether or not we’re winning—who knows, but we’re definitely getting closer to a day when it’s going to be—never casual, but certainly more understandable in our community,” Adams says.
As far as the state’s rate is concerned—Adams says one way to address the issue is by being willing to talk about it.
“I just think they need to be willing to have a conversation when it’s needed. It’s hard to be too understanding of the politics of it all, but ultimately, they need to be open to the dialog,” Adams says.
Lawmakers and local and state health officials are working to address HIV infection in Florida. After receiving some pushback, lawmakers passed a bill last year that created a needle exchange pilot program in Miami Dade in an effort to tackle growing HIV rates there. Adams say it would be great to see a program like that expanded throughout the state. No such bill has been filed yet for the upcoming legislative session, but lawmakers are just getting started for the 2017 session.