This year marks the 22nd anniversary of Oklahoma AIDS Care Fund Inc.’s Red Tie Night to benefit Oklahomans with HIV/AIDS.
March 1, Oklahoma City will come together again to rally a cause that has faded from headlines in the past decade, something that OACF wants to change.
“It’s more serious today than it was ten years ago. I think that people think, ‘Oh, it’s handled,’” said Paula Love, who is co-chairing the event with Michael Laird.
For those with the disease, however, medical advances in the last 20 years mean a diagnosis of HIV is no longer a death sentence.
“When I was a young person, it was everywhere; it seemed like it was all over the news every day,” Love said.
The early ’90s saw a push for awareness and prevention of what is, at the root, a preventable disease. Love said there was a perception that it was a disease associated with only drug-users, gay men and “other people” who weren’t the average American.
When OACF was founded, people diagnosed with the disease were confronted with an early mortality and were stigmatized and marginalized.
OACF founders Barbara and Jackie Cooper saw this firsthand. When they lost their son, Paul, to AIDS in 1990, they witnessed the devastation of the disease and chose to do something selfless and, at the time, brave. The couple, who own car dealerships and electronics stores around the metro, established a legacy that changed the landscape for Oklahomans affected by the disease. OACF was the first organization in Oklahoma to start fundraising for HIV/AIDS, Love said.
They helped take the stigma out of it because of the respect that they had within the community. They were able to spearhead the great organization and a great event that funds a wonderful cause,” Love said.
Due to medical advances over the past two decades, quality of life has markedly improved for those living with HIV/AIDS. However, infection rates are again on the rise.
Love cited numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report HIV among Youth.
“The statistics are heartbreaking,” Love said. “Since 2000, the number of teen cases has doubled. That was a shock to me. I don’t know if it’s just because they feel infallible and they don’t realize that this is such a big, horrible disease. That’s why OACF has an education system in place.”
The organization is committed to stopping the spread of — and curing — the disease.
“There are still powerful people out there fighting for a cure and fighting for a more manageable illness, but there are not as may fighters as there used to be,” Love said. “We still have a long ways to go, to finding a cure and preventing the disease, especially in young people.”
Money raised at Red Tie Night, OACF’s only fundraiser, helps fund the initiatives that do just that. Foundation grant recipients are varied, but they all have a central focus: to improve the lives of those living with this terrible disease and prevent anyone else from contracting it.
Past grant recipients include Other Options, a local nonprofit that operates a food bank and meals-on-wheels program for HIV/AIDS patients and their families, and the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences, which provides specialty care for patients living with the disease.
In 2013, OACF awarded $748,500 in grants to 16 projects or agencies, and 2014’s event has 17 projects earmarked for funding. Red Tie Night has consistently raised $1 million dollars or more in its single night to help with the nearly 9,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Oklahoma, according to the 2012 Oklahoma State Health Department report Cumulative HIV/AIDS Cases in Oklahoma.
Red Tie Night is often billed as one of the most successful and elegant evenings of the year with local celebrities donating their time and resources.
“I hate to keep all of it under wraps, but all I can say is that this year will be even bigger and better than ever,” Love said.