Elected officials, leaders gather with community for annual World AIDS Day candlelight vigil
By Anthony King | SDUN Editor
Mama’s Kitchen and Village Hillcrest came together once again to host the annual Tree of Life tree-lighting ceremony, this year held on Saturday, Dec. 1. The 21st annual event has become a staple for the Hillcrest community, marking the start of the holiday season while remembering those affected by HIV and AIDS.
The ceremony is considered by many to be the premiere San Diego County event commemorating World AIDS Day, an international movement backed by the United Nations that began in 1988. The tree-lighting ceremony has grown from its start in 1992, with elected officials and leaders joining upwards of 200 community members for the evening.
“World AIDS Day is a worldwide commemoration, and here in San Diego the Tree of Life lighting ceremony is our unique way of doing it in our community,” said Todd Gabello, Mama’s Kitchen board president. “We join, not only in unified spirit to remember those honored and recommit, but also it brings us together as a community and a family.”
Joining the speakers Dec. 1 was then-Mayor-elect Bob Filner, who took office the following Monday. The theme for this year’s World AIDS Day was “Getting to Zero,” signifying a global push for zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and zero discrimination against HIV-positive individuals. Filner recognized the theme while asking San Diegans to come together.
“We want to have everybody in San Diego understand that we’re all in this together. When somebody suffers, we all suffer,” Filner said. “We’re going to try to put that philosophy – that sense of humanity – into practice every day in our city.”
Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher, whose term ended Dec. 2, also acknowledged the “Getting to Zero” theme, saying he hoped the epidemic would be different for his two young children when they grew up.
“My hope is that with the continued effort of so many who are willing to stand with you, that 30 years from now they will have a world where equality isn’t debated, it’s just accepted,” Fletcher said. “They’ll have a world where there is not only zero new cases, but … zero new deaths.”
Fletcher has participated in past Tree of Life ceremonies, and said he honored those who openly fought the discrimination and lack of empathy from public officials during the epidemic’s outbreak in the 1980s.
“Over the last 30 years, look at what you’ve done. Those of you who led, that went first, look at the attitudes you’ve changed,” he said. “You went from 30 years ago until today, when the president of the United States hangs a red ribbon on the White House.”
Mama’s Kitchen Executive Director Alberto Cortés called Sen. Christine Kehoe, who was also in attendance, one of those leaders in the initial fight against the virus, saying he wanted to acknowledge her presence in addressing the epidemic in San Diego from the very early days.
“It’s always with mixed emotions I come to the podium here,” Kehoe said, “because I am really happy to see all of you and to be together once again, and at the same time we’re here because we want to remember our loved ones and friends who have passed away.”
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said she has seen the fight against the virus change in her years in San Diego as well, including how the initial struggle brought the gay and lesbian community together.
“I remember the days when we sort of had a separatist movement, with the women and the men in the gay and lesbian community,” she said. “When many of our brothers began to get sick with AIDS and HIV, we had to step up. It made a difference in our community. Now we are one.”
Combating discrimination was key to what Dumanis said, after she told of a judge who, during the initial cases of the virus, had a courtroom disinfected after an HIV-positive person appeared in the court.
“Those days have changed tremendously, though,” she said. “We still have a lot to do, and that’s why I’m here tonight, to also urge you and thank those that have been in this fight … and to remind us that the battle is not finished.”
Kehoe recognized Mama’s Kitchen for their work, along with other local nonprofits The LGBT Center, Christie’s Place, Being Alive, Townspeople and Family Health Centers of San Diego. She asked that people support organizations like these through funding or volunteering.
Mama’s Kitchen currently has 800 active volunteers, and was founded in 1990 by AIDS Assistance Fund volunteers. Having grown to support individuals affected by AIDS, HIV or cancer, Mama’s Kitchen provides home meal delivery and pantry food services to clients, which number over 570.
With the help of San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, the organization handed out their six millionth meal in March of this year. Roberts also attended the Dec. 1 Tree of Life ceremony.
Attendees were able to purchase special heart-shaped ornaments that they could then personalize and hang on the tree, which will remain throughout the holiday season. Village Hillcrest is located at 3965 Fifth Ave.
Candles were handed out for a vigil, while Perette Godwin of XETV-San Diego 6 emceed. Terry Cunningham, chief of the San Diego County HIV, STD and Hepatitis Branch of Public Health Services, lead the candlelight vigil and members of the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus sang several holiday songs.
“As we all light a light tonight,” Dumanis said, “let us recommit ourselves to do more, to open our wallets, to educate our friends [and] to make sure that we do whatever we can to help those that need our help.”