Albert H. Fulcher | Contributing Editor
Candles were lit as the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus sang at the candlelight vigil in remembrance for those that have passed before due to complications from HIV and AIDS. As solemn as the moment was, Alberto Cortéz, executive director of Mama’s Kitchen, said it was also a night for celebration with the advancement of treatment and prevention for AIDS and HIV.
Rocking the Ribbon was the theme of the night, remembering the times when those suffering from HIV remained hidden, ostracized and marginalized because of their illness. Created by a group of 12 New York artists, the red ribbon became the most recognized symbols of the decade, signifying awareness and support for those living with HIV, fighting the stigma, and those that were lost.
Cortéz said the event acknowledges the AIDS epidemic across the globe, memorializes those who have passed, and celebrates accomplishments and people that made a difference in the fight against HIV. He also said this event looks to create awareness about the current realities of HIV, the importance of prevention, and the resources available today to fight the suppression and transmission of the HIV virus.
“Resources are available for people to access that have helped bring us to a place where we can finally eliminate the transmission of HIV, which may sound like a pretty ambitious goal, but more than ever we believe that it is obtainable,” Cortéz said. “We need to be more vocal about the milestones we have made [in the fight against HIV]. We need to be more acknowledging about the advances we have made and more vocal about the resources that are available for folks that are living with HIV. We also need to recognize the resources to the folks that are vulnerable to becoming HIV infected to reduce or eliminate the risk of infection.”
Cortéz said over recent months and the past couple of years, a lot of changes were implemented at Mama’s Kitchen.
“We have expanded our mission to serve people with other critical illnesses,” Cortéz said. “We have increased access to services for people with cancer, we started a pilot program earlier this year for people with congestive heart failure and soon we will be initiating a project that is focusing on people with Type 2 diabetes and we are making significant improvements to the quality of service that we are providing.”
Cortéz said Mama’s Kitchen is sharing a message of what it has learned in serving people with HIV, which provides the organization an opportunity to expand that net and impact other lives — regardless of who they are or what they suffer with — and to make their lives better.
Rep. Scott Peters gave thanks to all of the staffers, volunteers and donors who supported the people that were “shut in and shut out” over the past 27 years.
“For those people, it means the world to them,” Peters said. “It is nothing that any government could do. It is a person to person thing and means a lot. It’s Christmas time and the story of Christ is the story of a God that saves. And there is no better message than Mama’s Kitchen about saving people. For me, as a Christian, it is awe inspiring to see the love that you give these folks. That’s an example.”
State Senate pro Tempore Toni Atkins said she loved Mama’s Kitchen and its expanded mission. She shared that her brother-in-law died of AIDS and her mother of cancer. She noted Mama’s Kitchen eagerness to serve anyone in the community proves that it continues to be the incredible organization that is has been since its smaller beginnings.
Atkins said she was aware that the event was “rocking the ribbon,” but also mentioned that this year’s theme was about transparency, accountability and partnership, and that it was the partnerships that she wanted to focus on. She added that her seat at the state allocates money which goes through the county and distributed throughout community organizations.
“There is a lot of conversation about PrEP and PEP and pushing us to do more,” Atkins said. “I will say that HIV and AIDS is not a gay disease, but it took the LGBT caucus at the state of California to push in the budget to get more. We did an additional $5 million this year to enhance comprehensive local services. San Diego County gets $425,000 of those dollars. Every one of those dollars goes to individuals directly.”
Part of that money is used to fund HIV testing to high risk populations. Atkins said the message for today is “to know our status.” Atkins said that now there are PrEP assistance programs that provides medical out-of-pocket costs for medications. An additional $2 million was allocated to expand the PrEP assistance program, as well as financial assistance for PEP and PrEP. Also, there is full cost coverage for uninsured individuals under the age of 18 and for those who cannot use their insurance for confidentiality and safety reasons, and for individuals whose insurance does not cover.
“For me, who lost my brother-in-law, my nephew grew up without his dad,” Atkins said. “My cousin, my dear Aunt Betsie — the kindest woman in the world — had to watch her son die before anyone ever knew what the disease was. So when I look at that tree [Tree of Life] and I see the names and I think about all the people that we have lost, the world would be a very different place if all those people were here. It is for them that we continue to work in the fight.”
Councilmember Chris Ward said the education, prevention, treatment, visibility, and ending the stigma is all helping to bring HIV transmission to zero.
“I promise that we are going to get there because we get together on days like World AIDS Day,” Ward said. “There are so many parts of the world that do not have the treatment and education and are very stigmatized, much more so than we find here in America. When we find the pathways here in the community we need to continue those pathways until we get to zero worldwide.”
Cortéz said Mama’s Kitchen was giving its first annual Humanitarian Award. The purpose of which is to acknowledge work, effort, and impacts that have gone above and beyond in making our community a better place. He said it was a joy to announce San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts as the first recipient.
“Ron [Roberts] has been an early advocate for HIV here in San Diego for 35 years, providing access to the resources that he can to make our community a better a better place in response to the AIDS epidemic,” Cortéz said. “He has facilitated funding that has provided for the essentials needs of our [Mama’s Kitchen] organization and allowed our mission to move forward. For that, I am grateful.”
Roberts delivered Mama’s Kitchen’s three millionth meal, four millionth meal, five millionth meal … and eighth millionth meal.
“His availability to help us spread the mission and the awareness of HIV in my estimation is exceptional and it hasn’t just been with Mama’s Kitchen,” Cortéz continued. “It has been with other organizations over the years as we continue our fight with this epidemic.”
Roberts said in working with Mama’s Kitchen he has seen much accomplished through this organization.
“Getting to zero is not just a slogan,” Roberts said. “In two years we have seen incredible reductions in the number of new cases of AIDS in San Diego. From 2016 to 2017 there was a 20 percent decrease. We are going to get to zero. We are going to get this done sooner. The only thing standing against us is getting to the people that need this information and them acting on it. There is no excuse for anybody to take advantage. There are no financial barriers out there, there’s no waiting list. We have the availability to the drugs that people need.”
Dr. Adam Zweig, medical director of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, spoke for the fourth year at this event. This year, Zweig wanted to touch on some points that he felt needed repeating. He said people tend to focus on the important people in our lives that were lost to AIDS but looking forward to a future of a cure and the eradication of AIDS and HIV transmission is becoming a reality. But, he added that as a community, we should focus a little more on the present and to be honest with ourselves.
“With such effective treatment and prevention many of us have become somewhat complacent when it comes to HIV and AIDS,” Zweig said. “Community activism has waned, and we’ve lost many AIDS organizations out of the perception that there is no longer is a need. Nothing is further from the truth. We know that a person that is living with HIV can live as long as someone that is negative. We know that viral suppression pretty much eliminates the risk of transmission. With little risk from those HIV people on meds [medications] and the increase use of PrEP for those at risk, why do we continue to see increases in transmission rates in people of color, women and transgender groups?”
Zweig said he could argue that much of the blame can be based on stigma.
“Stigma prevents people from getting tested and seeking prevention care,” he continued. “Sadly, what concerns me the most is the significant amount of stigma generated within our own community. When I see patients, I really have no advice to give on how to avoid the sting of rejection and the embarrassment that my patient will face when they disclose their status to another partner. Likewise, I have no advice on how to avoid PrEP shaming that often happens when men using PrEP are labeled as promiscuous. So I think our own community has a little bit of work to do before we can claim success to HIV treatment and prevention.”
—Albert Fulcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.