It’s a disease that many people still don’t largely understand, but in Florida, it has a far reach.
The Sunshine State currently has the highest rate of new HIV/AIDS transmissions in the entire country, while Orlando is sixth among cities in the United States.
The Winter Park-based Hope & Help Center of Central Florida is looking to shine a light on the subject — and raise money for research — with its annual Headdress Ball — Imaginarium! Saturday, Sept. 23, at the Marriott World Center.
“What Headdress really does for us, is it’s our signature fundraiser and it helps us get our message out there about HIV awareness and prevention,” said Joshua Myers, community development director at Hope & Help Center of Central Florida. “What we really want the community to know is where Central Florida stands and where the state of Florida stands as it relates to HIV.”
The fundraiser is in its 28th year as the organization’s go-to money raising event. This year, Headdress will be a bit different than the previous 27 years. Hope and Help is labeling it as a “strolling affair,” where guests can freely move about and enjoy the festivities — which will include cocktails, French cuisine and entertainment that will come in the form of master magician and illusionist Drew Thomas and Orlando writer Michael Wanzie.
This year’s theme for the ball is referred to as “steampunk-rouge,” and guests are invited to wear their steampunk costumes and actively participate in the night’s events.
In addition to the entertainment, Hope and Help will be giving awards to those helping with the fight against HIV/AIDS. There also will be a segment called “The Faces of HIV,” which will allow those fighting the disease to educate people as they discuss their battle — something Myers believes would greatly help prevent the spread of HIV.
“It’s all about education when it comes to that (sexual health), and if people don’t have the knowledge about all the different resources out there, or if they don’t have confidence within themselves to demand their partners to use condoms and practice safer sex with them, we are going to be at risk,” Myers said.
Hope & Help, Central Florida’s largest and oldest HIV/AIDS testing, prevention and care organization, was founded in 1988. The organization provides a number of different programs and services to prevent the disease — such as free HIV testing, education and awareness — and even has handed out more than 75,000 condoms. Along with prevention, Hope & Help also offers care to those living with the disease, offering up case management to help find resources to help their 1,500 clients.
Although the organization has been working hard to counter the growing HIV/AIDS issue in Florida, there have been difficulties — including a lack of funding and failing to educate people on the risks of unsafe sex, Myers said.
“We don’t have funding from a top-down approach like many other states like California, New York and even Washington, D.C., — they have much better funding to where their ASOs are really empowered to stop the spread of the illness,” Myers said. “But in Florida for some reason, there is a lot of stigma attached to it, and plus we are living in the Bible Belt — a lot of people, including parents, don’t believe their kids are having sex.”
That stigma and lack of information, Myers said, has hampered the efforts to best deal with HIV/AIDS, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Although there is no cure, Hope & Help believes the best means of defense now is to simply educate people and try to shed that notion of stigma that surrounds the disease.
“Our overarching goal is to continue spreading awareness about the numbers in Florida, and we want to continue educating the Central Florida community on the dangers of the illness and to empower them as well with the resources to stop the spread,” Myers said. “We want to continue that, but on a much larger scale.”