Thursday, Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, and Compass, the LGBT community center of Palm Beach County, is getting ready to unveil their annual portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt — which, at 126 panels, makes it the largest section of the Memorial Quilt in Florida.
“The quilt is displayed in a very unique way, with panels hanging from the ceilings and the walls,” Compass CEO Tony Plakas said. “It makes a sort of tunnel, and it has a museum feel to it; as you walk through it there is a very somber and contemplative atmosphere. It is a tradition that we care very much about.”
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According to Compass, 35 million people worldwide are currently living with HIV/AIDS. Over 1.2 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV, and there are currently 8,197 people living with HIV/AIDS in Palm Beach County alone.
World AIDS day is an opportunity for people to unite all over the world in the fight against the disease and to let people “show their support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate people who have died,” according to WorldAIDSday.org.
In recognition of World AIDS Day each year, Compass hosts a ceremony which includes the quilt display, a candle light vigil, and a performance by the Voices of Pride, the gay men’s chorus of Palm Beach County.
“Two weeks’ worth of community events join local community based organizations and several area churches together to engage the community in becoming a part of a global impact to end AIDS,” the Compass website reads. “In an effort to work closer with national and local initiatives to provide Palm Beach county with resources, Compass’ World AIDS Day promotes awareness about HIV and how to live a stronger and healthier life.”
In terms of the quilt, Plakas said that everyone is affected differently, as everyone has had a different experience with HIV/AIDS. While the Memorial installment is a place for people to come together in solidarity, it also serves as an opportunity for those unfamiliar with AIDS to see firsthand how the community is affected, and how far it has come since the earlier days of the disease.
“We understand that HIV doesn’t discriminate, that we have a history of taking care of each other, standing with each other when everyone else had abandoned us,” Plakas said. “We are reaching out to younger crowds who don’t have the history we do … who weren’t affected like we were. We always try to find a way to give the Memorial Quilt the respect it deserves.”
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Plakas stressed the strength of the community surrounding the quilt, for those involved in setting it up as well as the people who donate the panels to be displayed.
“The quilt is a vehicle to share stories of loved ones lost to AIDS,” Plakas said. “You start thinking about what these people have to say. It makes it real."
“The AIDS Memorial Quilt offers a unique opportunity to educate people about HIV/AIDS and infection prevention, to remember those who have died, and to comfort the grieving and help them heal,” reads a personal experience with the quilt on the Compass website. “By showing the humanity behind the statistics, the AIDS Memorial Quilt encourages compassion and inspires personal involvement in combatting the AIDS epidemic.”
This year, Plakas is excited to share that Macy’s will be a sponsor of the Memorial Quilt display, and takes it as a sign that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is receiving more mainstream support.
“Macy’s as a mainstream brand proves that things like this have taken off, which makes us excited and proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Plakas said. “This is an opportunity to attract more people to the center who may not have necessarily visited before.”
With recent medical breakthroughs and more media attention on the topic of HIV/AIDS, Plakas and Compass are hopeful that more people will strive to get involved in the community by coming out to see the Memorial Quilt.
“I can’t explain the feelings that you have when you see the quilt,” Plakas said. “My entire career has changed because of the quilt. The only way to understand … the only way I can explain it is that people have to come and see it for themselves.”