AIDS Foundation Celebrates 20 Years of Work, Raises Funds Through Viva!

New York drag legend and comic Hedda Lettuce charmed the audience between acts.
Photo: Melissa Ablondi Alves
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New York drag legend and comic Hedda Lettuce charmed the audience between acts at Viva! 2013.  Photo: Melissa Ablondi Alves

New York drag legend and comic Hedda Lettuce charmed the audience between acts at Viva! 2013.
Photo: Melissa Ablondi Alves

By: Emily Scagel/TRT Assistant Editor–

The AIDS Foundation of Western Massachusetts, AFWM, hosted its 16th annual gala “Viva!” last month. This year’s event took place at The Log Cabin in Holyoke, offering attendees an impressive ambiance for the festivities. The gala also kicked off AFWM’s 20th anniversary, and the night focused on the last two decades of progress and the future transformational work of the organization.

“This year we focused on the work of AWFM over the past two decades, highlighting the ways in which our sponsors and supporters have served and transformed our HIV/AIDS community,” explained Robert Quinn, AFWM’s President. “We honored that impact while looking forward to the next 20 years and our collective potential.

Viva! is AFWM’s largest fundraiser, according to Executive Director Jessica Crevier, helping to fund operating expenses, educational programs and support services.

“It allows us to maintain the educational programming that helps people who are HIV negative to remain that way, support groups, referral services and the emergency financial assistance program that helps people who are limited as a result of HIV/AIDS to maintain their dignity and quality of life,” said Crevier.

AFWM works to create a network of support for people living with HIV/AIDS in Hampden and Hampshire counties, according to AFWM’s website. The organization creates positive and powerful change in the community through education, outreach and support, and acts as a connection between people living with HIV/AIDS and the network of AIDS service organizations in the area.
“We work with case managers, mental and physical health care providers, pharmacies, social service organizations and more, with the goal of ensuring that people living with HIV/AIDS in our community have every opportunity to live their best possible quality of life,” explained Crevier.

Viva! is a celebration of AFWM’s work in the community, and a call to supporters to continue funding its progress in the fight to eradicate HIV/AIDS, as Quinn explained in his welcome in the evening’s program. This major fundraising event began as a masquerade ball, but evolved into more of a gala over the years.

“The event had always been so much more than a fundraiser,” reflected Crevier. “At its core, it was a celebration of life. Then, a former Trustee and our graphic designer, Todd LeMieux, proposed the name Viva!. It’s a name infused with life and hope and boldness.”
That infusion of life and energy was prevalent in the atmosphere throughout the evening as attendees shared in the passion of a common cause. Crevier first became involved with the organization as a volunteer at the gala.

“The passion and energy was inspirational and led me to become progressively more involved. Five years later and the spirit of Viva! is still my favorite element of the night.”

The gala’s seated portion began with speeches by key individuals, including Crevier, Quinn and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. The evening’s festivities continued with an engaging performance by New York drag legend and comic Hedda Lettuce. Kelsey Flynn, an improvisational comedian from New England, emceed the live auction between Hedda Lettuce’s acts. The live auction featured prestigious items, including a prime table at next year’s gala and a private meal prepared by the Log Cabin chef in the bidder’s home. There was also a silent auction that featured an impressive spread of items, including an autographed football from Danny Woodhead of the New England Patriots, a Yankee Candle gift set, a Mardi Gras wine basket and tickets to “Traces” at the UMASS Fine Arts Center.
According to Crevier, the event was a great success.

“Thanks to the generosity of our sponsors and guests, Viva! raised well over $50,000 in support of people living with HIV/AIDS in our community. Our live auction brought in more than ever, and our raffle alone raised over $2,500! We’re extremely grateful and proud,” she said.

Millie Colon, a Case Manager for Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS at the River Valley Counseling Center, enjoyed the spirit of community at the gala.

“I’m glad to be here. It’s great to see all these people giving their time, financial support and care to the people I’ve dedicated myself to,” said Colon.

All proceeds from Viva! support AFWM’s mission in the community, a mission that Quinn is personally familiar with. A Springfield native, Quinn first discovered AFWM while struggling with the financial stress of HIV.

“Almost immediately, I felt a ray of hope when I found AFWM,” recalled Quinn. “I applied for their emergency financial assistance program when I had nowhere else to turn.”

While it is not discussed as openly as when it equaled a death sentence, HIV/AIDS continues to spread through communities like an epidemic, warned Crevier. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Holyoke and Springfield rank in the top ten cities with the highest reported cases of HIV/AIDS in the state.

AFWM seeks to end the spread of HIV/AIDS through its programming and outreach. “Since its inception in 1993, AFWM exists to complete two objectives in serving our community,” stated Quinn. “First, we provide emergency financial assistance to people living with HIV/AIDS. We also provide education to people about community-based services, HIV transmission prevention and social support.”

AFWM has made a significant impact in the community in its first 20 years, and is planning to meet the challenge of slowing and stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS through newly expanded educational programming.

“Our peer education group, the AIDS kNOw More Project, is developing exciting new ways to educate the community about prevention and stigma reduction. We are developing monthly educational programming for people who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS,” Crevier said about AFWM’s plans for the future.

Viva! 2013 successfully raised funds needed to support the future goals of AFWM, and they have “received wonderful feedback from the community and are already putting it to good use in planning next year’s gala,” said Crevier.

Currently, AFWM is planning its second annual National Women & Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Conference, to take place March 9. For more information about the AIDS Foundation and upcoming events, visit www.aidsfoundationwm.org.