Recently I had the honor of sharing an evening with warriors on the frontlines in the War on HIV/AIDS. On Nov. 2, I attended the Second Annual Long-Term Survivors Award, presented by the Chicago Area HIV/AIDS Caucus, EASE, at the Harold Washington Library. It was a humbling experience, as I was one of the honorees that evening.
The Chicago Area HIV Caucus was formed by HIV-positive individuals to assure that those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS are at the forefront of all efforts to ease the impact of the epidemic, with the ultimate goal of ending it. Its mission is to form a supportive network of people living with HIV that will ease the pain, frustration and discomfort caused by infection and disease, as well as the stigma associated with people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.
The acronym EASE means: Empower those living with HIV, to actively participate in the planning, implementation and evaluation of HIV prevention and care services; Advocate for health issues, prevention, quality of care and services, funding, policy and legislative initiatives supporting at-risk and/or those living with HIV/AIDS; Support HIV-infected individuals and families to understand and effectively engage in HIV counseling, testing, treatment and care; Educate all people, consumers of HIV services, providers of services, policymakers, and community members about the impact, experience and needs of people living with HIV.
Christopher Brown, assistant commissioner for STD/HIV/AIDS Public Policy & Programs at the Chicago Department of Public Health, started the evening with a wonderful heartfelt welcome that allowed me to reflect upon my lived experience with HIV. His words of survival and perseverance truly set the tone for the evening.
Bruce Edwards, technical consultant to the Caucus, expressed, 'We want individuals living with HIV/AIDS to smell their roses while they are able to and we want them to receive their accolades while they are on this side of the earth.' Edwards also developed the concept and staging for the award ceremony.
The exquisite evening began with dance that was interwoven throughout, choreographed by Dereque Whitus. The opening number was a duet, a dance and sign language interpretation by Edwards and Daniel Smith to Bette Midler's 'Wind Beneath My Wings.' There were 15 trophies and 10 certificates, which recognized long-term survivors that evening. Dancer Antoine Banks portrayed Mr. HIV as a gay white male, an African American man, an African American woman and as a senior passing awareness on to the youth. Banks strutted and pranced across the stage, characterizing the populations that HIV has affected in the epidemic and the passed the envelope that had the names of the award honorees to the Mistress of Ceremonies, Alicia Bunton.
Awards and recognitions were in several categories. Last year's recipients presented this year's awards. The Special Award was for individuals who have been living with HIV for any number of years who have been actively advocating in the community in various arenas. Recipients in this category were Anthony Hollins for his work in the category of faith-based Initiatives and his dance ministry. Matt Sharp for his work regarding HIV/AIDS treatment advocacy on the national level, and many contributions to various HIV/AIDS publications. The Caucus usually awards individuals, this year C&M Pharmacy was honored for their work within the community and for their foresight in assisting HIV-positive individuals affected by Hurricane Katrina. Accepting their award was Heather Ahrens and executive vice president Gordon Schweigerdt.
Renee McGee was honored for her work in the LGBT community and tireless work with the HIV Planning Council.
Illinois State Rep. Larry McKeon was honored for his work on HIV public policy and legislation regarding HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.
Cortez Rhodes, a long time survivor at age six, was honored for being an advocate in the making, and Princess Zulu was recognized for her global advocacy, including her work as an HIV ambassador to Africa and the United States.
The Bronze Awards were for individuals living with HIV for at least eight years. Recipients were Brent Adams, for his advocacy work in public policy on both the state and national level; Reginald Jackson, for his work with various community planning councils on both the state and national level; and Keith Waddell, for advocacy work both here in Illinois and in Africa.
Silver Awards were presented to individuals living with HIV between 14-19 years. I was honored in this category for my advocacy efforts as an actor and writer; George Martinez for his work around legislation, spearheading the first organ transplant law for people living with HIV. Martinez is also one of the first people living with HIV that had a successful organ transplant. Rob Hadley was also a recipient for his advocacy work with various planning councils, in addition to starting an HIV-positive support group at his church.
Gold Awards were presented to individuals who have been living with HIV for 20 or more years. Recipents were Jerome Adams for his work regarding faith-based initiatives and education. Adams also re-established an AIDS Ministry at First Church of Deliverance on Chicago's South Side. Debra Fleming was honored for her work through the arts, educating people about HIV/AIDS, and for her work with various support groups for women living with HIV/AIDS; and Rae Lewis-Thornton ( Emmy Award winner for her documentary on her life as African American woman living with HIV ) was recognized for her advocacy surrounding women's issues on the local, state and national level.
Presentations were followed by Anthony Hollins and his Dance Ministry, who wowed the audience with a beautiful number entitled, 'I Dream of a World.' It was truly an honor to be a recipient of the Silver Award. What jubilation it was for me to share in this experience with a company of warriors who are creating rippling effects of knowledge, love, and understanding for our communities, our people, and especially for the generations that follow us all.
If you would like to become involved in making a difference, contact the Chicago Area HIV/AIDS Caucus, EASE, Patrice Dean, co-chair at ( 773 ) 271-2242 extension 203, or Bruce Edwards at ( 312 ) 747-9645. The Caucus meets every second Thursday of each month from 1-3 p.m. at 333 S. State Street, Room 200.