Ernie Rodriguez will be honored Saturday, May 16, at the 30th Year Gala of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ), to be held at the Hilton Chicago. He will be presented with the Lori Kaufman Volunteer Award after working and volunteering in the HIV/AIDS community for 22 years.
It goes back to his friend Rick Jones, who died from AIDS in 1995, just a couple years after being diagnosed.
"It was really hard when he died," said Rodriguez, 52, who lives in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood. "He was my best friend; we talked every day, several times a day. Then one day I didn't hear from him, or the next day, or that whole weekend. When I finally heard from him, he told me that he needed to go to the ER ( emergency room )."
Jones was immediately diagnosed with AIDS.
"We've come further [in the fight against HIV/AIDS] than I ever thought we could," Rodriguez said. "Ten years ago, when I took [my current] job with Gilead Sciences, we were at a time [in medical history] that I was really excited about.
"We've gone from [HIV/AIDS patients needing to take] 30, 40 and 50 pills a day to [needing only] one pill a day. It's been quite an evolution of treatment."
Rodriguez, now the community liaison for Gilead Sciences, also is the vice-chair of AFC's board of directors. He started in the HIV/AIDS industry in 1993 at AIDS Project Los Angeles ( APLA ).
He is originally from Los Angeles and has lived in Chicago for about 10 years. His partner of eight years is Ryan McArdle, 38.
"When I started working for APLA, we only had four medications available for people, so people weren't taking medications that were completely effective, but it was the best they could do. The side effects were pretty difficult for people to live with, and [thus] not everyone chose to go on treatment," Rodriguez said.
"The work I now do for Gilead and the volunteer work for AFC is what has motivated me after all these years. I've dedicated my life to HIV, while I myself [am HIV-negative], yet it is the disease that I have worked so hard to get people on medication for treatment [of] and into care."
In addition to Rodriguez, AFC will honor Thomas Kehoe with the Community Impact Award.
Rodriguez said he is "dumbfounded, blown away" to be honored "because I don't think I'm anything special compared to anyone else; I just do what's asked and try to help in the best way that I can."
This award "means the world to me; it really does, because I love the AIDS Foundation of Chicago," he said. "It is one of the biggest honors I can imagine. It was really kind that my fellow board members thought that I deserved an award like this; I was pretty excited and happy," to learn about the award.
The pain of Jones' passing is still there, "like it just happened yesterday," said Rodriguez, who admitted that he's not sure he'll be able to share the story, relationship he had with Jones at the AFC Gala without tearing upeven though it was 20 years ago.
Tom Kehoe said it is "overwhelming and undeserving" of the honor he is set to receive from AFC.
"I feel like I am just doing what I should be doing, or what everyone else does dogiving back to the community. I'm glad to give back, assist those who need a little help," he said.
Still, AFC is celebrating its 30th year of service on May 16 at the Hilton Chicagoand Kehoe is one of two longtime supporters who will be honored at the gala for their contributions to AFC and the HIV/AIDS community. He will be presented with the Community Impact Award.
Kehoe, 47, who grew up in suburban Mount Prospect and has lived in Chicago for the past 20 years, is the president of an event-design company, Kehoe Design.
Kehoe, who has been on AFC's board for eight years, said he was really surprised to receive the honor..
"I have always been impressed by the work done by the AFC board and have just wanted to support [the organization] more and more," he said. "Seeing the people involved with AFC, and sharing their passion, has always been my drive. They really put their heart and soul into helping others, and the way they help others is so diversefrom counseling to medical to housing and so much more."
Kehoe said his work with AFC continues to get better and better.
"Working with AFC has helped me be aware about so much of the gay community, which I was not aware of," he said. "The work AFC does, and how it affects so many people, that was such an education.
"Being part of the [AFC] Board has been an amazing education and a huge motivation in how to be thankful for everything that I have, and it motivates me to do more for others."
AFC will commemorate 30 years of action with the HIV/AIDS community during its 30th Year Gala, taking place at the Hilton Chicago on Saturday, May 16, 6 p.m.-midnight. Actress Amy Landecker ( Transparent ) will be mistress of ceremonies. Tickets are $500 per person and $5,000 per table; call 312-334-0935 or visit www.aidschicago.org .