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World Aids Day a time to take a ‘Stand Against Stigma’

Waukegan  Saturday  12/1/12   

Karen Kowal is one organizers Saturday's World AIDS Day event held Waukegan High

Waukegan Saturday, 12/1/12 Karen Kowal is one of the organizers of Saturday's World AIDS Day event held at Waukegan High School | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 2, 2013 2:20AM

World Aids Day in Lake County is part party, part commemoration.

There is a hint of sadness as the HIV/AIDS community, a close-knit group that includes people living with the disease, their families, friends, caregivers, caseworkers and volunteers committed to their survival, gathers each Dec. 1. HIV/AIDS has infected and killed millions over the last 30 years and there is still no cure.

But World AIDS Day also brings joy.

“It’s a celebration of those who continue to choose life,” said the Rev. Chris Fox, pastor of First United Congregational Church of Christ — a Waukegan church that championed the cause of people with HIV/AIDS in the early years, when they were loathed and feared.

“Let each of us be a voice of hope and light to lift up those who are weary of struggling with this disease,” Fox told the crowd. “Our community is called to love and care for each other.”

Held at Waukegan High School’s Brookside Campus on Saturday, the bilingual “World Aids Day Tribute: Stand Against Stigma” included a luncheon followed by a program, candlelighting and reception. The program of song, dance, poetry and prayer took place on the stage of Trapp Auditorium, beneath a large red ribbon suspended in the air.

Performers, including a woman who read her poem, which asked “Why should I hide the truth from my kids?” expressed feelings of isolation, loneliness and shame brought on by HIV-related stigma, sometimes perpetrated by their own loved ones.

Dolores, a 75-year-old great grandmother who recalled the shame she felt when she was diagnosed with HIV 22 years ago, said she was once denied visits with her own grandchildren.

“The stigma can silence us, shame us, but we can find the strength to face it,” said Crystal Garcia, a master of ceremony.

An estimated 1,000 people in Lake County are living with HIV, according to Sara Norr, STI (sexually transmitted infections) program coordinator for the Lake County Health Department. About 250 of those, or one in four, don’t know they’re infected.

“Even if people develop AIDS and get healthy,” Norr said, alluding to successful drug treatments for the disease, “they still have to live with that diagnosis.”

Reginald Diming, 44, who lives at Alexian Brothers The Harbor in Waukegan, a transitional living center for people diagnosed with both addiction and HIV/AIDS, lost several friends to the disease. Without the help he’s found in Lake County, he said, he might be dead, too.

“This is a reminder that there is hope and people do care,” Diming said.

The World Aids Day Tribute was sponsored by eight groups including Alexian Brothers The Harbor, Catholic Charities, Lake County Health Department, YWCA of Lake County, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., Links-North Shore Youth Health Service, First Congregational UCC, Waukegan, and Pediatric Aids Chicago Prevention Initiative.

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