Providing aid for AIDS victims

Ariel Vapor was disheartened when he received the news, but not particularly surprised.

He was HIV-positive.

Seated at the UCI Medical Center, with his skin pockmarked by MRSA [methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus] infections, he knew his "promiscuous" lifestyle was to blame.

The Costa Mesa resident, who identifies as gay, recalled thinking, "Thank God it's 2006 and not 1986 or 1996."

Having improved significantly over the past two decades, HIV/AIDS medications are now saving lives. But Vapor nonetheless discourages people from discounting the severity of the disease. Even if they are able to live longer, patients like many of his friends still suffer and die, he said.

In the days leading up to and after his diagnosis, Vapor, whose weakened immunity was being overrun by the virus, didn't have health insurance. It was only with much-needed help from AIDS Services Foundation Orange County that he was able to get the 25 pills that he takes each day.

After a case manager directed him to the 17th Street Testing Treatment and Care Home, part of the county's Health Care Agency, Vapor also received mental health services.

The foundation comes to the aid of an estimated 1,600 of the 6,876 Orange County residents living with HIV by providing food, transportation, housing, emergency financial assistance, family programs, support groups and education.

Although more than 1.1 million people nationally live with the infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, almost one in six, or 15.8%, are unaware of their status. In Orange County, this translates to 1,086 people living in the dark.

Laguna Beach, Anaheim and Santa Ana are the worst-affected cities, and in the past five years, 20- to 29-year-olds have demonstrated the largest increase in the average number of new cases. Among minority groups, the disease is cropping up fastest among Hispanics.

"Our strategic plan has changed since the face of HIV/AIDS has changed," said Vapor, who is also a client board member. "[In the past] our vision focused on hospice, end-of-life care and critical health services, but now, it is to identify newly diagnosed people and get them on the prevention track. Medications are turning AIDS diagnoses into something more livable, so ASF is changing with the times as well."

He also strongly believes that donors, like those who will be recognized at the organization's Season of Sparkle holiday party on Dec. 18, can take pride and satisfaction in the knowledge that their dollars are making a difference.

According to Chris Bragg, director of major gifts, this year's annual event, which has been dubbed "A Coastal Celebration," will be hosted at the Island Hotel Newport Beach. Along with cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and a "giving tree," the evening will include an address by Executive Director Philip Yaeger.

Although not among ASF's largest fundraisers, which include the annual gala, AIDS Walk and OC Ride for AIDS, next week's 6 p.m. holiday party is an opportunity to thank those who take the organization closer to its goal of eradicating HIV/AIDS, Bragg said. He was also struck by longtime supporters Karla Kjellin-Elder and Jeff Elder's plan to match any gift, up to $20,000, given to AIDS Services Foundation Orange County during and leading up to Season of Sparkle.

"We have been very lucky in our lives — we've not had any major illnesses, none of our children are HIV-positive," Kjellin-Elder said. "We've met very nice people and been touched by the spirit of people who work for ASF. So we decided that when we get some money, we will give a percentage back."

ASF's website says $25 can provide one HIV test, $50 a prevention seminar to homeless youth, $500 six months of case management and $750 a year's worth of mental health counseling.

The Orange couple were introduced to the foundation about 10 years ago. Since then, they've regularly made financial contributions and served as volunteers. Kjellin-Elder, who has worked in the pantry one day a week for five years, was once gifted a necklace by a client bowled over by the fact that she'd delivered groceries to his doorstep. Although he subsequently died, she said it is common for those who help to be worried about the patients they encounter.

"So many of these people have nothing," Kjellin-Elder said. "If it wasn't for ASF, they would be out on the streets. [And] without volunteers and individual donations, ASF wouldn't exist."

If You Go

What: AIDS Services Foundation Orange County's Season of Sparkle — "A Coastal Celebration"

Where: Island Hotel Newport Beach, 690 Newport Center Drive

When: 6 to 10 p.m. Dec. 18

Cost: $45

Information: or Chris Bragg at (949) 809-8760

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