AIDS Help began in 1986, when the disease was in full force with no cure. Everybody in Key West knew somebody infected or dead from the virus, according to AIDS Help Executive Director Scott Pridgen.
“When the AIDS epidemic came on the scene nobody knew what was happening and it was a death sentence,” Pridgen said.
The organization had a very modest beginning — supporters sold beads at Fantasy Fest. Their efforts did not go unnoticed and eventually AIDS Help partnered with Fantasy Fest to create a unique fundraiser. Now candidates vie to be named king and queen by raising the most money for AIDS Help with a series of events ranging from cocktail parties to bingo games. The most money raised was in 2003, $413,000, when Bill Anderson was crowned king and Nadene Grossman crowned queen. The lion’s share of the funds go to meet AIDS Help’s housing goals.
Due to medical advancement, HIV-positive patients are living longer. AIDS Help has responded by widening the scope of its services in 1989 to provide housing. It now has 96 residential units available not only to AIDS patients, but also others who are in need.
“Our properties diversified four years ago to include people with disabilities, the elderly, homeless veterans and low-income households. Our organization recognizes a housing problem in the community and we decided to do something about it,” said Pridgen. “You cannot do anything in life unless you are housed.”
AIDS Help continues to provide new services to the community. In 2014, a portion of the king and queen campaign will help fund an assisted living program, where nurses and specialists take care of low-income elderly clients in the comfort of their own home, in partnership with Island Home Care. The nurses and home health aides also treat HIV positive patients younger than 65 because they often have medical problems linked to AIDS and the strong medication.
“While the discussion regarding assisting living in the Lower Keys has been going on for quite a while, the same obstacles that have kept development stagnant have been embraced by the collaboration of AIDS Help and Island Home Care. We saw opportunity where others saw roadblocks,” said Kim Wilkerson of Island Home Care. “The lack of available and affordable land, along with governmental bureaucracies and an overall high cost of living has made creating an assisted living facility burdensome. So, instead of waiting for an assisted living facility to be built, we are bringing assisted living to the individual home. People don’t want to leave their homes and, now, they don’t have to.”
AIDS Help also participates in educational outreach programs. In collaboration with Womankind, it is helping educate Keys youth about sexually transmitted diseases.
AIDS Help is a Keyswide organization and has four offices throughout the island chain. For more information about AIDS Help, call 305-296-6196 or visit aidshelp.cc