Not just a 'gay health problem'

In the 1980s, a then-mysterious virus began taking a toll on Laguna Beach.

On World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, the community will remember its losses, cherish the strides made in the testing and treatment of the disease, and promote awareness of the danger of complacency.

Black ribbons will drape 15 prominent pieces of Laguna's public art in remembrance of the Laguna residents who have died from AIDS. The city's HIV Advisory Committee will host a health and awareness exposition at 3 p.m. at Main Beach, followed by a candlelight vigil.

"In the beginning, World AIDS Day was called A Day Without Art," said Siân Poeschl, the city's cultural arts manager. "However, the United Nations changed it to World AIDS Day, and the commission is honoring that."

The shrouding of public art in Laguna is in recognition of the number of deaths in the arts community due to AIDS.

Ribbons bedecking public art this year will include the "Council" sculpture on the corner of Loma Place and Forest Avenue; the "Voyager" in Treasure Island Park; the "Shopper" on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Beach Street; "Discussion" on Ocean Avenue outside Anastasia Café; the "Five Frog Bench" in front of the Hotel Laguna; Jon Seeman's "Breaching Whale" in Heisler Park, which will take a lot of ribbon; "Sight and Sound" at Browns' Park; and the "Deer Warrior" in Jahraus Park, which was created by artist Cheryl Ekstrom to help folks face their fears.

Participants in the Advisory Committee's observance will include Laguna Beach High School students, groups with representatives on the committee and three recipients of city funding recommended by the committee: the Laguna Beach Community Clinic, Laguna Shanti and the AIDS Services Foundation.

"We want to remember those who have died, but we also want to make sure the public does not become complacent," said Will Heilbut, the AIDS Services Foundation's HIV prevention specialist and liaison to the committee. "Booths will be staffed by agencies that serve people living with HIV or AIDS, and people who don't."

Or who aren't sure and want to know.

The clinic will conduct free, anonymous 20-minute tests from 3 to 5 p.m. at the expo, funded by the grant from the city. No appointment is needed.

"AIDS is no longer a gay health problem," said Kim de St. Paer, chairwoman of the HIV Advisory Committee and head of the anonymous testing and counseling program at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. "Between 25% and 30% percent of the (infected) people in the United States are heterosexual women. And by 2015, the biggest group will be people over 50."

The event will also include an exhibition of duplicated parts of the Orange County AIDS quilt, she said.

"Brian Sadler, who is one of the 'positives' on the Advisory Committee, is in charge of the quilt, which is being repaired," said de St. Paer. "A new panel will be added, so the public can contribute comments and messages."

Throughout the afternoon and evening, high school students will call out names of Laguna Beach residents who have died from AIDS, and they'll be joined by members of the public who have lost loved ones.

Students also made posters announcing the event that will be displayed in city stores, and they'll be clipping red and black ribbons with names on them to trees downtown.

There will a lot of ribbons.

More than 500 Laguna Beach residents have died from AIDS complications since the disease was identified in the 1980s. And the city is home to 485 people living with the virus — the highest percentage per capita in Orange County.

But they live better and longer than those who became infected in the early years of the epidemic.

"Working with AIDS or HIV patients has renewed my faith in humanity," said de St. Paer.

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