It is estimated that globally 34 million people are currently living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Thursday, Dec. 1 marks the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, a day to commemorate those living with or who have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS. Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the Veteran’s Memorial Plaza, the Santa Cruz AIDS Project (SCAP) invites the community to attend the World AIDS Day Remembrance Celebration to honor the millions of lives worldwide affected by the disease.
The program will consist of musical performances, lighting of remembrance candles, words of compassion and the reading of names of those in Santa Cruz County who have lost their lives to AIDS/HIV. The ceremony will conclude with the opportunity for the audience to share the names of family and friends who have passed, followed by a reception.
“HIV affects some of the most vulnerable people that don’t necessarily have any sort of visible presence that people see,” said Angie Wootton, SCAP volunteer coordinator and a former UCSC student. “Because they don’t have that [visibility], there’s a stigma. It keeps people from speaking up for themselves. That’s why it is important to have these events where the community gets together.”
In light of federal budget cuts, in 2008 SCAP terminated their education prevention program. Since then, SCAP has had volunteers reach out to the community as best as they can.
Wootton said approximately 25 of 38 volunteers are UCSC students.
UCSC student Rachel Hastert explained why she chose to volunteer for SCAP.
“It’s an important issue, and [it] affects so many people,” Hastert said. “I wanted to do something in the community and I like working with people.”
Volunteers is vital to continuing SCAP’s work.
“There’s been funding cuts, so we have a harder time going out to spread our message about HIV testing, spreading free condoms and our information about services,” Wootton said. “This is one of those ways we can create more community recognition about SCAP and let people know that we exist and that we have services.”
Patricia Castagnola, SCAP director of client services, addressed the lack of proper education about AIDS/HIV.
“They talk briefly about it in school,” she said. “Maybe for sex education, like a sentence.”
Due to the lack of funding for outreach, SCAP representatives say there is little education on how a person can contract AIDS/HIV.
“There’s a stigma since it’s less public and people are talking about it less,” Wootton said. “[People think] if you got it, it was completely your fault. There’s a lot of blaming for people who are positive, for their choices or their lifestyles or for something about them that people think inherently makes them not worthy of making good decisions.”
SCAP members stress the importance of being informed about AIDS, and remind the public of its existence.
“I think our younger generation feels that ‘people aren’t dying as they did in the 80s,’ and maybe they feel that they can’t get it,” Castagnola said. “That issue is still out there and people aren’t having safe sex and they’re sharing needles and doing things that they aren’t being careful of.”
Due to the lack of education, public awareness and resulting stigmas, many SCAP clients do not attend the annual event. While a current SCAP client will speak at the ceremony, Wootton said many are still too uncomfortable to attend.
“Even on the one day of the year dedicated to remembering those who have passed from HIV and honoring those who are currently living with HIV, there’s still so much stigma … We can’t expect our clients to come out for themselves,” she said.
SCAP encourages individuals to get involved outside of World AIDS Day and provides various opportunities for people to contribute to the effort to fight AIDS.
“We’re always looking for volunteers and we take donations,” Castagnola said. “We have a food pantry here and different groups here do food drives for us. We had a church … that instead of going trick-or-treating, they went trick-or-treating for canned foods for us. They do that every year and it’s a great way of helping our clients.”
SCAP encourages supporters to wear the red ribbon, the international symbol of AIDS, in honor and remembrance of this day. They will be handed out during event.
“The whole point is to have a visible symbol,” Wootton said. “When you walk around, people ask you what it is or if they know it, they’re reminded of it.”