All across the country yesterday, people dined out for life. In North Carolina, Arden, Asheville, Black Mountain, Brevard, Candler, Franklin, Hendersonville, Highlands, Maggie Valley, Mars Hill, Sylva, and Waynesville were no different. Now in its 15th year, WNC Dining Out For Life has grown into one the biggest meals of the year with over 100 restaurants donating 20% of their proceeds of the day to support WNCAP. Last year alone, over $160,000 was raised. What makes this number all the more impressive is that nearly half came from in-hand donations by diners across the region. Without the force of nature volunteer base at WNCAP, this would be impossible.
Supporting local businesses and organizations is almost an ethical obligation to most Ashevillians, and on days like Dining Out For Life, which falls on the third Thursday of every April, this sentiment is so tangible, you can taste it. Certainly local pride fuels many diners, but it isn’t just microbrewed beer and farm-to-table delicacies that bring hungry donors back each year with empty stomachs and ready wallets.
In one word, it’s our volunteers.
To be more specific, it’s that personal connection, that friendly face, that greets diners unfamiliar with WNCAP and all the work we do in western North Carolina. It’s their clear love of our mission to eradicate a virus in our region, to destigmatize an illness, and to support people who have been neglected for decades. On Dining Out For Life, every plate has a story.
On National Volunteer Week, WNCAP is humbled by the love of these volunteers. Thirty years ago, we began as an entirely volunteer-run organization that did a job no one else would: providing care and comfort to people dying of AIDS-related causes. Happily, as HIV changed from a “death sentence” to a chronic illness, so too has WNCAP’s volunteer needs. Where it once took a small group of caregivers to offer gentle support to people in hospice, WNCAP volunteers are now party planners, food and prescription delivery drivers, outreach workers, ambassadors, advocates, and more.
When most people think of HIV/AIDS, they tend not to think about the caregivers behind the virus. And in many cases, these were women who were drawn to volunteer their time as their friends died alone in hospitals and bedrooms in cities everywhere. Some of these unsung women affected by HIV are two of our longest-running volunteers: Barbara and Betty.
Both women became involved in the HIV/AIDS crisis when it took a personal toll on their loved ones. Barbara, a nurse, credits one patient in particular for initially encouraging her to give her time to people living and dying with HIV; she also credits Betty for further encouraging her to get involved with local Asheville nonprofit, Loving Food Resources. Barbara recalls,
A friend of mine died in the early 80s by himself in isolation in an ICU. And by the time my BF got to the hospital, he had died. He died alone. I don’t think anyone should have to go through this because they have a virus. It’s wrong. Regardless of their sexual reality, their practices, it’s wrong for someone to not have love and support going through that journey.
For Betty, it was the aftermath of these deaths that left an impact. “It absolutely floored me to see families abandon children, their grown children.” For the first time since meeting, she raises her voice. “Then they have big, Christian funerals after they died. It absolutely horrified me. I don’t think children should have to die alone.” Next to her, Barbara agrees, “And the word AIDS was never mentioned by the family at the funeral.”
Things have changed a lot in the last twenty five years. Both women agree that younger generations who didn’t witness the initial AIDS crisis are missing a critical degree of awareness to just how serious HIV can be. Between the horrific side effects of life-saving drugs and the lack of cure, HIV remains a “forever” condition. Where the “worst thing” that could once happen after sex was pregnancy, Betty says flatly, “Now, the worst thing that could happen is, you could be dead.” She credits the rapid HIV Testing WNCAP provides as one of our greatest resources.
“We’ve met some really amazing people and we’ve lost some really amazing people’” Betty says. The connection between Betty and Barbara is clear. These women met through their volunteerism in support of people they loved and lost to AIDS-related causes. And in the process, they became allies, partners, and close friends. For people like our volunteers, who connect through shared losses, they often find legacy in one another. “We’ve met people who’ve changed our lives.” And in Asheville particularly, a volunteer spirit fuels much of the work so critical to the Western North Carolina region.
Barbara further explains, “I’ve taken several journeys with people, and I’m a different person because of each of them. I’m a better person because of them. But they didn’t have to die that way.”
The future of the end of HIV falls on this force of love. As a generation of people who never had to witness friends dying in overcrowded hospital hallways, this love will begin to look a little different; many of our volunteers lost loved ones to the AIDS crisis of the eighties and nineties. But as we age, it becomes ever more important that young people understand how much has changed–but also how little.