After eight weeks of nearly nightly fundraising events, the King and Queen of Fantasy Fest competition raised more than $195,000 to benefit AIDS Help, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to providing case-managed health care, housing, food, counseling, referral and support services for HIV-infected residents of Monroe County.
“It’s a very rigorous campaign to raise money and win the title,” said Deputy Executive Director Joe Pais. “In fact, coronation as king and queen of Fantasy Fest is probably one of the most sought after titles on the island.”
In their campaign materials, Queen Vicki Gordon explained she had lost so many people in her life to AIDS, and King Ralph Garcia, a fourth-generation Conch, said he longed to give back to the community that has given so much to him.
Their competition in the royal race also included Stacy Stahl and the ‘Mar’keys’ Mark Blackburn and Mark Patterson.
AIDS Help was founded in 1986 by a small group of like-minded community leaders who sought to ensure people living with HIV/AIDS in Monroe County would have access to a respectable and comfortable quality of life.
Pais said one major factor of AIDS Help is that every client who seeks assistance from the organization receives individual care and support from a case manager. A credo by which the staff operates also maintains that clients are not only clients, but they are also friends and neighbors within the community.
The same year AHI became the beneficiary of the Fantasy Fest king and queen competition, the organization also began purchasing property and housing units around Key West to put their clients directly in those apartments.
“We work to provide services for people not only when they’re sick, but also to help put them in situations so they can live independently,” Pais explained.
In mid-August, AIDS Help opened 14 new one-bedroom apartments at Seebol Place, named for the organization’s first executive director, Dr. Ed Seebol, on Catherine Street in Key West.
Pais said the organization serves both children and adults of all races and creeds. AHI currently has 343 active cases in Monroe County, and nearly a third of those are employed within the very community they are living.
“Many of our clients are long-term residents who don’t need a hand out but a hand up,” he affirmed.
AHI is staffed with 23 full-time and part-time employees that are supported by 162 volunteers who do everything from assisting the office staff with paperwork to coordinating community fundraising events. Many volunteers even work directly with clients by going into their homes and helping with everything from washing dishes to writing checks to pay the bills. From preparing a list and heading to the grocery store to providing taxi service to and from doctor appointment, if there is a need, AIDS Help works to meet it.
With the support of many local restaurants in Key West, AHI also coordinates pickup and delivery of hot meals to their clients seven nights a week.
As federal health officials are exploring the possibility of a “test and treat” strategy to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS where it is currently concentrated in areas like Washington, DC and the Bronx, NY, Pais emphasized the importance of AIDS Help’s education programs. They provide HIV prevention, education, outreach and testing programs that target high-risk populations across the Keys. Their expansive education program includes free and confidential testing by appointment five days a week.
King and Queen
Queen Vicki Gordon and King Ralph Garcia will don their royal sashes, wield their royal scepters and let their royal caps fly and in the salty breezes all week during Fantasy Fest, which culminates this weekend. The 2009 king and queen competition raised nearly $200,000 for AIDS Help, Inc. Photo Courtesy of Pete Arnow, AIDS Help, Inc. Photo Courtesy of Pete Arnow, AIDS Help, Inc.