Pictured Scott Silverman and Todd Armbruster. Photo by Andrew Davis
Hearts Foundation was formed almost seven years ago to raise money for HIV/AIDS service organizations all over Chicago. To date, the group—which was borne out of Bringing Our Hearts Together and is composed completely of volunteers—has raised more than $700,000 for various groups, according to Scott Silverman, the organization's secretary.
One might think that a group with such a mission might be completely free of controversy, especially within the LGBT community; however, one would be wrong.
For years, Fireball, the annual circuit party/fundraiser that the group sponsors, has been the subject of a growing cacophony of critical voices who say the event is the very essence of drug-fueled indulgence. Also, the arrests of organization co-founder Michael Jackson ( on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated vehicular hijacking ) and Howard Brown Health Center's Michael Anderson ( on crystal meth and GHB possession charges ) have adversely affected the group's reputation.
However, Silverman and group vice president Todd Armbruster both acknowledge the efforts that Jackson made: 'He is responsible for spearheading the transition into the Hearts Foundation. Mike took a lot of time from his own personal schedule and was the lightning bolt [ who ] did a lot of the work.'
Then there is the WBBM-780 report. In a four-part program on crystal meth and the gay community that aired Feb. 22-25, the station stated that Hearts Foundation president Dennis Sneyers commented that 'last year Fireball distributed less than $36,000 to AIDS charities in Chicago,' which was only about 10 percent of the total take from the event. However, the more damning (and damaging) quote was when Sneyers responded to a Fireball attendee's quote that 90 percent of the dancers on the floor had used meth at the event's Union Station dance: 'I would [actually] say 20-30 percent.'
Windy City Times recently spoke with Silverman and Armbruster. [Note: Sneyers was out of town during the first interview but discussed his statements separately.]
Windy City Times: Do you understand why people criticize Fireball?
Todd Armbruster: As a board, I think we've done a pretty damn good job in trying to educate the public on the event because it can be a huge avenue for raising money. But any time you have a group of 3,000 people ...
Scott Silverman: Well, you can't dictate people's behavior.
TA: All you can do to educate and possibly change people's behavior.
SS: Our belief is 'Party safely and party responsibly.' You don't need drugs to have a great time.
WCT: But what about the school of thought that says that, in order to party all weekend long, drugs are necessary?
SS: I'll use other parties as a comparison, but I won't name them. The one thing we do that some others don't do is to not have a party that [immediately] follows one that goes into the wee hours of the morning. There's plenty of time in between parties for people to eat, sleep, and hydrate themselves. It really isn't that different from what people do for Fourth of July—even in the heterosexual community. People pick and choose what they need to do. Yes, if they go out all night there are people who are going to abuse crystal meth. But they're the same people that you find in any of the bars on Halsted, in sporting venues, and even in any of the clubs downtown. We try to provide education awareness and we have teams of volunteers who watch the crowd. We have security pat-downs; we want to be thorough but we try not to be completely invasive.
TA: We've been adamant even to the point of [checking people] backstage. We've had to pat down performers—mainly as a warning to people that we're not going to put up with it. We did arrest someone at the [Union Station] event. We also had ambulances and EMTs (emergency medical technicians) there.
SS: All of our events have EMTs on staff; they're all volunteers. The biggest issue that I have seen is dehydration; people are not drinking enough water. When you're dancing and having a great time, you're sweating and dehydration can hit you quickly.
WCT: So neither one of you heard any reports of rampant drug activity at this year's Fireball? We actually got phone calls telling of things happening in the bathroom at the main event [at Union Station].
SS: We had security officers by all the bathrooms. We had them by the bathroom by the coat check area as well as officers by the Port-A-Potties.
TA: We've been involved with this organization called the Electric Dreams Foundation. It's a group that puts together these health summits to educate promoters about drugs so the parties can still happen. I've been told that we set an example for other similar organizations about [everything from] security to promoting condom [usage]. You don't want someone to get in a situation where he risks having unsafe sex.
SS: Let's say you meet someone and you want to ... share each other's company. It's much easier to practice safe sex when [the condom] is in your pocket as you're walking out the door. We want to fight HIV/AIDS. We put packets together and they're available at every event. I want to address the question you asked. We are an easy target. I think that's partially because of the demographic that we draw (affluent white males in their 20s and 30s). There's no way that I believe that circuit parties cause drug abuse. Drug abuse happens prior before arriving at this event—and continues after this event. That's the issue that we need to look at. It's very easy for a community leader to say 'Fireball causes drug abuse.' The drugs are already out there. It's too easy for people to point their fingers at us; we're not the villains. However, the one thing that I'm grateful for is that people are talking about crystal meth abuse.
TA: That's a very big point.
SS: If we're the catalyst for the conversation, bravo. The Hearts Foundation has taken an active step [in battling drug abuse]. We had information about meth abuse and safe sex at Fireball. There were also condom and lubricants in the gift bags as people checked in. If we can get one person to change [his] behavior, then at least it's a step in the right direction. We just took out another ad in Boi Magazine in which we urge people to break the grip of Tina [a nickname for meth].
TA: One of the things that Scott discussed that needs to be hit home again is [the time in between parties]. How can anyone possibly go to 10 parties in five days, you know?
SS: For example, there's the Winter Party, which is also not-for-profit [in Miami]. Miami is a different type of community. However, people pick and choose their events.
TA: We had a lounge with [slow] music, water, and juices.
WCT: Do you think most people go to a circuit party and think of lounging?
SS: No ... but this is an alternative at the end of the event. However, when people know it's available, they take advantage of it. The lounges were pretty well-attended.
WCT: Let's talk about that WBBM report. What about that quote from Dennis about Fireball proceeds? Is that true and, if so, how did that happen?
Dennis Sneyers: That figure was about right. The reason that we distributed [so little] was because we had charges from the 2002 and 2003 Fireball events that I felt obligated to pay. There were expenses that had not been submitted by the vendors and they had to be paid. Then, I had the books audited and that cost some money. So the net proceeds were not as much as we had hoped. I think when we release this year's financial figures [which should happen soon], I'm sure we'll have a 40-60 percent increase [in proceeds] over last year. [This year's beneficiaries include Chicago House, CALOR/Anixter Center, Test Positive Aware Network, AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, Vital Bridges, Heartland Alliance, BeHIV, and the Lesbian Community Cancer Project.]
SS: The fundraising [results] last year were less than what we anticipated. That should not have happened. We spent too much on our gala. The funds would've been allocated better if there had been more financial control—and that problem has been resolved. In my opinion, we were completely wrong. ... I was absolutely livid.
WCT: So this year ...
SS: That loophole has closed. We require a budget for everything—and that budget has to be submitted to the board for approval. ... Every year we try to produce a world-class party with Fireball—but keep our budgets in line. Last year, we cut our budget from the previous year by $100,000 and we still produced a [top-notch] event. Unfortunately, there were other expenditures. That comment, by the way, was about the Fireball season. It wasn't just about Fireball itself.
TA: The most difficult thing with the planning of these parties is you try to figure out how many people you think are going to come. With all the controversies, we actually even looked at cancelling—but there's a certain point where you can't turn back.
SS: The hard part [for me] is that 70-80 percent of the ticket sales happen the last week before Fireball—and 60 percent comes from out-of-state. You get a little nervous but it always seems to work out. We have a great reputation nationally. We must be doing something right if we can get people to come from L.A., Miami, and Texas to come to Chicago in February. I also want to add that, in my opinion, we draw money from a demographic that doesn't usually give donations to AIDS organizations, in general. They're feeling better that their tickets go to not-for-profit groups, but they're not usually inclined to write a check. Second, we bring a lot of money to the gay and lesbian businesses on Halsted. People go shopping at The Pleasure Chest and the bookstores. You'll be hard-pressed to find business that don't recognize the influx of cash from our patrons. It's not like Chicago is a huge tourism base in February. The other thing is that we require hundreds of volunteers. We provide an opportunity for people to feel—even in a small way—that they're giving back to the community. Members of our board started as volunteers and worked their way up.
WCT: Now about that '20 to 30 percent' quote...
SS: Yes. That was spoken out of turn, without any foundation of knowledge or information. The comment was more of a rhetorical comeback. It was a conversation between two people. It was something that should not have been said.
TA: Well, if someone came to you and said that 90 percent of the people at Fireball were on crystal, now what would you say? 'Well, I would say more like 20 or 30 percent...'
WCT: I wouldn't say that.
SS: I wouldn't say that, either—and Dennis should not have said that. It was a mistake. There was no empirical evidence to support that statement. The long and short of it is this: We apologize to the community for that statement. It was made inappropriately and with no malicious intent. As far as we know, that statement was not true.
DS: That quote was inaccurate. [The host] had started by saying that Fireball guests had claimed that over 90 percent of the guests were on drugs—not crystal, but on drugs. I said that I don't think that it's anywhere near 90 percent. Then he tried nailing me down to a percentage and I said that I couldn't give him a number. Then he asked, 'Would you say 75 percent? 50 percent?' Again, I told him that I couldn't give him a percentage. I [eventually] said '20 or 30 percent'—and that's where he got the number from. I don't think I'll be giving them an interview anytime soon.
WCT: There was quite an uproar ... .
DS: You know, later I said 'Why don't we have everyone stand at the door and piss into a bottle?' How can you really prove percentages? It's sheer speculation.
WCT: Care to comment on the Mike Jackson situation?
SS: It's a tragic situation for the victim [Haroon Paryani] and his family as well as for Mike Jackson and his friends and family. It was a blow to our community; [Jackson] was an extremely active person. We as a foundation are grateful for his work. Also, our faith lies in the court and judicial system that the matter will be resolved equitably and fairly.
It would be inappropriate for us to make a judgment because we don't know all the facts. All we can say is that our sympathies go out to the families on both sides.
TA: It's unfathomable.
SS: [The arrest and ongoing legal proceedings] have hurt our fundraising efforts...
TA: That and the Howard Brown arrest [Mike Anderson]...
WCT: [Anderson's arrest] has hurt your fundraising efforts?
TA: People are calling us because Mike Jackson and Mike Anderson sound alike.
SS: It's weird because they are different names. But, Howard Brown and Hearts Foundation sound similar.
TA: Also, Howard Brown is one of our beneficiaries—so we get questions about that.
WCT: Are there other misconceptions about the Hearts Foundation?
TA: The interesting thing about our organization is that we will look at any agency. If we feel that it fulfills our goals, we'll fund it.
SS: Let's face it: The AIDS dollar is getting harder and harder to come by.
TA: The worst part is that the epidemic is becoming worse—and it's coming back to the gay community.
SS: What's sad is the younger generation of gay men has not witnessed the ravages of AIDS. They haven't seen people walking like skeletons and dying. I'm grateful that when I came out, I came out educated. ... However, it doesn't relieve me of my responsibility to the community. I've lost a lot of friends and seen the ravages. ... People don't realize how horrible it can be to live with AIDS. The other thing is about crystal meth ... I didn't realize how it affects the mind. People who are definite addicts don't perceive that—and that's going to be a hard message to get across. We're willing to partner with organizations to get the message out.