In 2001, Randall Gurewitz passed away from AIDS. Sixteen years later, his family gathered to see the personalized quilt for the first time in-person at Compass, the LGBT community center of the Palm Beaches.
“It was like we were back together as a family,” Gurewitz’s mom, Anna, said.
Compass commemorated the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day on Saturday and remembered those across the world who have lost their battle to HIV, like Randall. They proudly unveiled panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt while celebrating the medical breakthroughs over the years.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a collection of wall-covering quilts that honor those who have lost their battles with HIV. Compass displayed this year’s knitted tributes while attendees participated in a candlelight vigil.
“World AIDS Day is a day of education and unity…” Compass Executive Director Julie Seaver said. “As cuts in funding continue to happen and our current administration does not acknowledge us in this fight, we won’t stop fighting until the end of HIV/AIDS becomes a reality.”
Dec. 1 was first declared World AIDS Day by the World Health Organization in 1988. Since then, it has been observed all over the world with a different theme each year. This year’s theme was “Know Your Status.”
Compass introduced a new addition to the quilt this year that hit close to home for South Florida. It was in honor of a local bar owner and activist, Michael “La La” Brown.
One of Brown’s close friends, AJ Wasson, boasted to the crowd of Brown’s compassion and warmth that he spread through the community.
“Ten and a half years ago, our community lost a piece of our heart and soul,” Wasson said. “It didn’t matter what [anyone] looked like, he would make everyone feel welcomed and loved.”
Brown’s quilt panel, like most, was smothered in thoughtful signatures, one being: “La la, thank you for always putting a smile on my face.”
Compass had a full docket of events both solemn and celebratory in honor of the annual event. There was a performance from Voices of Pride, the gay men’s chorus of the Palm Beaches, as well as a moment of silence led by local Rev. Taylor Stevens.
“There was a lot of tears and a lot of joy,” Wasson said. “We are making a difference.”
The AIDS Memorial Quilt was created by the NAMES Project Foundation one year before World AIDS Day was established. The foundation is based in Atlanta, but its impact is nationwide.
It was also noted throughout the day that Compass also started 30 years ago. The organization was originally known as the Stop AIDS Project of South Florida. Funded both federally and locally for all of its education efforts, the grassroots project later evolved into Compass in 1992.
Compass now specializes in case management, HIV prevention and community outreach. They also offer youth programs for LGBT members to encourage social support. Their youth program includes a youth group and transgender youth group for ages 12-18 and a mentor program.
Although World AIDS Day is over, Compass is still holding HIV-related events throughout the month to spread awareness. Over 36 million people are living with HIV, according to the World Health Organization.
“It’s vital to continue to spread the message that HIV treatment works, that prevention is preventable, that ‘U=U’ can change lives because undetectable = untransmittable,” Seaver said. “HIV is a diagnosis — a diagnosis that does not define us.”
On Dec. 5, the center will hold a youth group World AIDS Day talk and another HIV talk the same day for the greater community.
The Compass quilt is open to the public through Dec. 12. Panels like Michael Brown’s that are available at Compass have brought comfort for loved ones, like Wasson.
“Thanks to Compass,” Wasson said, “Michael has come home.”