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Big crowd marks World AIDS Day in Golden Gate Park




 

More than 600 gathered to heal broken hearts and to urge against complacency in the ongoing fight against HIV and AIDS on Sunday, at the 20th observance of World AIDS Day at Golden Gate Park.

Among them was Mike Smith, the executive director of the AIDS Emergency Fund and co-founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, who comes every year to remember the friends whose names are engraved in the Circle of Friends monument in the park's National AIDS Memorial Grove.

The memorial contains names of those who have died of the disease, as well as those who have dedicated their careers to fighting AIDS or have made financial donations to the Grove.

Many who came Sunday had names of lovers, co-workers and friends etched in stone. Famous donors also appear: Robin Williams, Sharon Stone and Calvin Klein.

"It's important to come each year and reflect," Smith said.

The emergency fund he directs helps 2,000 San Franciscans living with HIV/AIDS stay out of poverty by assisting them with rent, utility bills and groceries.

"Too many young people today think HIV is an old man's disease," he said. "What they don't understand is that the drugs have terrible side effects. Most of the people I know who are now dying are of cancers at a premature age."

Just managing their health care keeps many in poverty, he said.

In keeping with World AIDS Day tradition, two people were honored with awards.

The 2014 National Leadership Recognition Award was given to Phill Wilson, a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and founder of the Black AIDS Institute based in Los Angeles, which is the only national think tank focused exclusively on black people.

Although black males make up just one in 500 men in the United States, they account for one in four new HIV infections.

Wilson, who has been HIV positive for more than 30 years, electrified the crowd with a rallying cry for national health care.

"We have the tools to end AIDS in the United States, but will we?" he said. "We are not going to get to end of the AIDS epidemic unless we find a way get health care to the 1.1 million Americas estimated to be living with HIV. Obamacare has GOT to work. We have got to make it work instead of wasting time arguing about a broken website."

The Local Unsung Hero Award was posthumously given to Franco Angelo Beneduce, an artistic producer who created the annual Light in the Grove event to commemorate loved ones, as well as the Folsom Street Fair's Magnitude after-hours dance party. Eight family members, several who flew in from Rhode Island, took the stage to receive his award.

After the ceremonies, organizers read a list of the newest names engraved on the Circle of Friends.

In the crowd was Kelly Rivera Hart, a San Francisco native who has been living with HIV for more than two decades. Medical side effects have given him a degenerative nerve disorder that gives him chronic numbness and tingling in his limbs.

"This disease isn't something you can just take a pill for and it's over," he said. "You have to worry about what the pills do to you."

But coming to World AIDS Day is a form of spiritual healing for Rivera Hart.

"I feel supported seeing so many people here," he said. "When I pass on, and I'm doing everything I can to make that not happen for a long time, but at least I know that I won't be forgotten."

Meredith May is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: mmay@sfchronicle.com



 


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Information in this article was accurate in December 1, 2013. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.