(Photo by Katherine Pflieger)
Hundreds of Bostonians living with HIV/AIDS and their families sat down to a Thanksgiving dinner last week to celebrate life, hope, and the community they share year round.
The Boston Living Center’s annual Thanksgiving dinner, known as a Celebration of Life, welcomed 700 people to the Hynes Convention Center where they caught up with old friends, listened to live music, and shared a meal and thanks with family and friends.
“It’s certainly a room full of people who don’t take life for granted. They’re people who really have had to look at death right in the eye and say 'this disease may be the end of me',” said Jonathan Scott, president and CEO of Victory Programs, which merged with the Boston Living Center in March.
Throughout the year, Boston Living Center, one of the region’s largest community centers for people living with HIV/AIDS, serves meals, offers peer support services, a computer classroom, holistic care, social events, art classes, and workshops for people living with HIV/AIDS.
In 2011, the Stanhope Street center served 40,000 meals to low-income and homeless members. It also connected 98 percent of its 1,131 members to an HIV healthcare provider.
“For the most part these are individuals who have very limited resources, and this is their community center and a place that has giving them huge hope and healing,” said Scott, whose Boston-based Victory Programs provides housing and health services to homeless people and families struggling with addiction and chronic conditions through 17 individual programs.
The dinner kicked off with passed appetizers as guests found friends and chatted about the past year. Families then sat down to tables decorated with red, gold, yellow, and orange centerpieces to share a Thanksgiving dinner with all the traditional fixings.
“This is my Thanksgiving. This is my family. This is the only time I know they’re still alive,” Theresa Nowlin, a Boston Living Center member, said as she took a break from checking in dinner guests. “People are thinking because we are living longer we don’t need any of this. We do.”
Nowlin was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and found the refuge in the Boston Living Center, which she said welcomed her with advice and support and without judgment.
"I didn’t know how I was going to live another day," said Nowlin, recalling her reaction to her diagnosis. "If it weren’t for the Boston Living Center I would not be standing here today. ...They loved me even though I couldn’t love me.”
Nowlin said the annual holiday celebration has gotten smaller since she first started attending in 1994, pointing to funding cuts to the state’s HIV programs and services.
According to the Massachusetts Office of HIV/AIDS, 31,153 Massachusetts residents have been diagnosed and reported with HIV/AIDS, as of September 1, 2012. Of the HIV diagnoses made from 2008 through 2010, Boston accounted for 28 percent of the diagnoses.
Scott, of Victory Programs, recalled the sad moments of sitting next to people at the center's early dinners that he knew would likely not be alive by the next year's event, but said thanks to advancements made in medical treatments he has seen the dinner become more of a celebration ever year.
"There are still many people who are still dealing with many, many complication and many health issues related to HIV, but people I think are really able to believe in a future," said Scott.
Strides have also been made in society's perception of the disease, said Scott.
“The sea change was the power of love, and really was one person at a time saying 'This is not right. This person I care about cannot be neglected by our government and medical institutions," he said.
Now, the dinner serves as the organization's largest fundraiser, raising more than $100,000 for HIV/AIDS program.
Despite the advances, there is still more work to do, said Scott, who often has lunch with HIV/AIDS patients at the center.
“How can anyone tell me this isn't real and this isn't one of the most important services the great state of Massachusetts can do?”