As HIV Infection Rates Rise in Minnesota, 'Aliveness Project' Plays Santa
You don't hear much about people dying of AIDS in Minnesota any more. Because powerful drugs keep the disease in check for many, it's almost fallen off the radar.
Still, more than 7,500 people in Minnesota are fighting HIV. And health officials believe at least 2,000 more are infected but don't know it. The need for help remains strong, especially around the holidays.
At the offices of "The Aliveness Project" in Minneapolis, the halls are alive with the sound of Christmas--for example, scissors cutting through crinkling wrapping paper. On Thursday, Santa's helpers were preparing to deliver more than 700 boxes of holiday joy.
According to Tim Marburger, the Project's director of fund raising and special events, "They're filled with lots of love and lots of support that will go our out to people living with HIV across the state."
For 25 years, they've been making these deliveries; anonymous donors adopt a family and fulfill their wish lists. Perhaps surprisingly, the need has never been greater because the infection rate in Minnesota shows no sign of slowing.
"The previous two years we saw numbers, increases that we haven't seen since the '90s," Marberger said. "Some of the groups were young men, 14 to 23 years old."
About one half of the gift baskets will go to minorities--of those, a third are African American and 15 percent are African immigrants. The face of AIDS in Minnesota has greatly changed.
Then there's Jody Breaux and Todd Nelson. Both are white, gay men. Both are HIV-positive. Both are on disability. Yet between them, this couple of five years has seven children and four grandchildren. (Nelson was once married to a woman and they had five kids; Breaux is the guardian of a friend's two teens.)
Of their limited finances, "You pay things one month, let things go the next," Breaux said. "You just rotate things. That's all you can do."
The toys delivered to them will cheer the kids, particularly two of their grandchildren who live with them. But like many who receive these baskets, Breaux and Nelson's wish lists were far more practical.
"We asked for bed sheets," Nelson said. "Things that we would need for the house."
Marburger added, "So many of the folks will just say 'I need clothing' but even beyond that they talk about 'can we get toilet paper? can we get cleaning supplies'."
Aside from their health issues, they continue to deal with the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS.
"There's a shame involved," Breaux said.
And recent statistics are troubling.
A new report by the Centers for Disease Control reveals about 1,000 young Americans between the ages of 13 and 24 are infected with HIV every month. About 60 percent of them have no idea they're infected.
Only 13 percent of high school students have been tested for HIV.
In late November, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommended all people, ages 15 to 65, should be routinely tested for HIV and AIDS.
In all, about 1.2 million people in the U.S. are HIV positive, and about one in five don't know it.
Still, the subject is simply no longer a front burner issue. "There's a lot of of people that don't talk about it no more," Nelson said.
For the people who ARE talking, and helping, and giving, he added, "It means a lot. I mean, it means a lot to us."
Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at email@example.com