Guests will step back in time to the chic ‘60s at the Philadelphia Center’s Auction Against AIDS in August. Community members determined to halt the ravages of HIV and AIDS started the auction in 1989 to provide seed money for the Philadelphia Center, the region’s only HIV and AIDS resource center. This year’s theme, “Diamonds & Pearls,” reflects the traditional and modern gems associated with a 30th anniversary. Volunteers will recreate the glamorous world of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the Aug. 17 gala.
The center itself opened in 1990, thanks to the very first auction and generous support from the community and volunteers. It’s grown from a tiny operation offering testing and counseling to a one-stop location for services, support and treatment for people living with HIV and those affected by the illness. The center serves nine parishes in northwest Louisiana, with a focus on preventing — not just treating — sexually transmitted diseases.
“One of the best ways we’ve expanded is that education piece of our mission,” said Dr. Lonnie McCray, president of the Philadelphia Center board and this year’s auction chairman. “Even though the state cut prevention back tremendously, we fund prevention almost on our own. We seek other grants. The Community Foundation has been great to help us with that.”
In 1989, U.S. health officials issued the first guidelines to prevent the spread of HIV, the same year the number of reported AIDS cases hit 100,000. The federal government also offered money to states to start HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment programs, in addition to directly funding seven community health centers dedicated to HIV counseling and testing.
But in the ‘80s, only the former LSU Hospital in Shreveport provided AIDS treatment — and patients seeking the latest breakthroughs had to travel to LSU Hospital in New Orleans. Community members like Dr. Robert Darrow lobbied for more funding to expand the Shreveport program, and when that failed, they took to the streets in protest.
“We were the last region in the state to get a viral disease clinic,” Darrow said. “There was a lot of resistance, mainly from the medical community, to even having us in the community. No one wanted to be associated with the disease. It would harm their regular practice.”
ACT-UP Shreveport, modeled on activist groups around the country, led the effort to open an HIV/AIDS health center in Shreveport-Bossier City. Eventually, those involved in ACT-UP worked at the Philadelphia Center, Darrow said. He served as the center’s first executive director for five years and remains active in the organization. “My doctor, Dr. Mark Spurlock, actually founded it. He was swamped with patients at the time. He had hundreds of people living with HIV and AIDS,” Darrow recalled.
The Auction Against AIDS started as a cabaret at the Florentine Club, then grew with each year, Darrow said. These days, Philadelphia Center supporters pack a ballroom at a Shreveport casino. The auction is the center’s largest fundraiser and beyond that, a chance to educate community members on the ways HIV and AIDS treatment have changed. The Philadelphia Center has changed to, expanding services to include testing for other sexually transmitted diseases.
The center also offers one of the most recent developments in the fight against HIV — a daily pill that can prevent a person from developing HIV even if exposed to the virus. The treatment, called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PReP), reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by 90 percent. It’s sometimes used by people who are in a relationship with an HIV-positive partner. “We have a PReP clinic,” said Hershey Krippendorf, the Philadelphia Center development director. “We have over 100 clients on PReP.”
It’s a place where people with HIV or any other sexually transmitted disease are treated as people. We look at the whole person.”
PReP is an example of how far HIV treatment has come. Krippendorf says other daily medication can reduce the amount of HIV viruses in a person’s body so much the disease is undetectable, a new status that could help ease the continued stigma of having HIV. “Science has established that ‘U equals U’ — that ‘undetectable’ equals ‘untransmittable’,” she said. “We try to educate the community about things like this.”
Dr. McCray was drawn the center’s focus on compassionate outreach when a friend urged him to become involved more than a decade ago. “It’s a place where people with HIV or any other sexually transmitted disease are treated as people. They’re not shunned and shamed. There’s still such a stigma around HIV and AIDs,” he said. “We look at the whole person.”
The center sponsors support groups, free classes and fun events for the families of people living with HIV. It also serves up to 10 people a year through Mercy Center, a residential program for people living with HIV. Last year, artist Rebecca Thomas offered art therapy for clients in the Mercy Center program, and they created original art for the 2018 Auction Against AIDS. “Their items sold and that made them feel like the world accepted them,” Dr. McCray noted.
This year’s Auction Against AIDS will feature original art from several long-time contributors and supporters, including Brett Malone, a former Philadelphia Center executive director. Paige Powell offers a glammed-up version of this year’s auction poster. There’s also jewelry; gift certificates to local shops and eateries; and travel packages.
The Holly Golightly Barrel of Booze will give one lucky winner enough wine and spirits for a blowout bash. Philadelphia Center board members, community sponsors and Central Station lounge donate the bottles that go in the barrel, a tradition at the Auction Against AIDS.
“Jacquelyn Barber, our artistic director, will transform Sam’s Town into a Tiffany & Co. store, with the signature Tiffany blue,” Krippendorf said. “We’ll have performers from Central Station dressed like showgirls, and they’ll do songs like Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
Guests can get in on the fun with a series of contests throughout the evening, including a prize for the best “little black dress.” But in keeping with the Philadelphia Center’s mission, the emphasis is on inclusion and acceptance. “Our guests can dress to the theme or come casual,” Dr. McCray said.
Money from the Auction Against AIDS will help the Philadelphia Center continue funding services for nearly 600 people in northwest Louisiana while increasing prevention and outreach efforts. The center plans to start a pilot needle exchange program this year to try to reduce new HIV and hepatitis C infections. Both viruses can be transmitted when drug users share or reuse contaminated needles.
Dr. McCray said there’s a huge need for accurate information about sexually transmitted diseases and sexual health, especially among teens and young adults. He wants the Philadelphia Center to remove barriers that may keep them — and people of any age — from getting tested and treated for STDs.
In 2017, Louisiana ranked third in the nation for primary and secondary syphilis case rates and fourth in the nation for HIV case rates. Just last year, nearly a fourth of all new HIV diagnoses were among people 13 to 24 years old, while nearly 1 in 3 new syphilis diagnoses were in that age group.
“With not just HIV, but with other STDS, that 16 to 25 group, that’s the fast-growing group for new infections,” Dr. McCray said. “We have a wellness center now, so we actually have our own nurse practitioner and a medical doctor on staff who works with our clients. We are working on becoming a medical clinic at some point.”
Diamonds & Pearls: The 30th Annual Auction Against AIDS, Aug. 17 6-10pm
Sam’s Town Hotel and Casino, 315 Clyde Fant Memorial Parkway in Shreveport
Details: DJ, live performances, food, drink and a silent auction.
Tickets: $30 through Aug. 1; $60 Aug. 2-17. Tickets will be available at the door.
Information: www.pcauction.org or 318.222.6633, ext. 2016.