PINELLAS PARK – The AIDS Partnership, a faith-based volunteer agency, will host the local observance of the 31st International AIDS Candlelight Memorial May 18, 6 p.m., at Good Samaritan Church, 6085 Park Blvd.
The candlelight memorial was first started in 1983 as an international campaign to raise awareness of the HIV epidemic. The third Sunday in May is a date observed by 1,200 community organizations in 115 countries, according to the organization’s website, www.candlelightmemorial.org.
Locally, the AIDS Partnership has observed the day for almost 20 years, said its president Ellen Bauer.
“It’s important for many reasons. The world needs to recognize that HIV epidemic is still present,” she said. “We recognize those who have gone before, and we want those who are affected by HIV now to have some comfort and to know that people are still standing guard and keeping the light on AIDS.”
The AIDS Partnership seeks to bridge the gap between those suffering from AIDS or HIV and the faith community. An Episcopal priest Rand Frew and Mary Stephan founded the organization in 1994. When Stephan’s son became infected with HIV, she felt alienation from her Presbyterian church family, Bauer explained.
“She felt that she could not bring her whole story to all of the faith community,” she said. “She became aware that there were many people who felt they couldn’t bring their tragedy to the faith community.”
So Stephan worked to unite local Catholics, Lutherans and those of her own denomination to teach the community. She wanted the AIDS Partnership to “lovingly give that assistance and support” to those struggling with the disease as well as destroy any stigma related to it, Bauer said.
“Her basic thing was that those that are hurting sit next to you in worship, and they can’t even reach out for your help,” she said.
When Stephan became ill, its volunteers incorporated the organization into a recognized nonprofit in 2002, Bauer said. Stephan died in 2006, but her mission continues. The HIV epidemic is not only an ongoing problem, but prevalent in Pinellas County.
Bauer said the younger generation isn’t taking the disease seriously anymore.
“Our youth these days have no memory of devastation that occurred 20 years ago. These young people are now putting themselves at risk for the same personal devastation,” she said. “Young people’s attitude is ‘Well, I can take a pill,’ or ‘It’s controllable,’ without any real internalization (that) the virus destroys their body and the drugs have devastating side effects also.”
The AIDS Partnership is a small organization with only a four-person board. But they’re all volunteers. Along with providing awareness, the partnership offers support to those infected with the disease, both morally and monetarily with gift cards. The organization hosts a fellowship dinner on third Wednesdays at different local churches that support the partnership.
“I know that there is a group of people that we have affected in a very positive personal way by offering them fellowship, support and a little bit of … money,” Bauer said. “I am always delighted when I hear someone say something positive about being accepted in the community because we have helped.”
The group participates in St. Pete Pride. They host HIV testing events. The downtown Dunedin restaurant group of Kelly’s, Chic a Boom Room Martini Bar and Blur Nightclub has named the nonprofit as its house charity, raising funds for it through 50-50 raffles during Drag Queen Bingo Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m., at Blur, 325 Main St., Dunedin.
Members of several local churches will participate in the upcoming candlelight memorial. The service in general is designed to incorporate many faiths, Bauer said.
As a tradition, the names of victims of the disease will be read throughout the entire service, to represent how the HIV infection is a constant if quiet presence in the world.
“(It) acts as a background for the whole service,” Bauer said.
After a gathering prayer, the group will recite a Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for mourners. There will be responsive readings, congregational singing and performances by soloists from Our Lady Of Lourdes Catholic Church in Dunedin, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Clearwater and the local Jewish congregation.
Rev. Temple Hayes of First Unity of St. Petersburg, and William Harper, executive director of the AIDS Service Association of Pinellas, will speak.
The candlelight service will end with a tolling of the AIDS memorial bells, once for every year of the epidemic.
“(H)elp us recognize the disease, grieve with those who have lost loved ones and be uplifted by our message,” Carol Dunn, secretary of the AIDS Partnership, wrote in a email inviting local officials to the service.
The AIDS Partnership has offices at St. Lutheran’s Church, 407 S. Saturn Ave. in Clearwater. For more information about the organization, call 446-7718, ext. 242 or visit www.aidspartnershipinc.com.