[dropcap]D[/dropcap]ini von Mueffling. With a name like that you’d expect the title “Lady” to precede it. Lady…Dini…von…Mueffling! Well, this gal is some lady, and she’s earned the title.
Let me set you straight about my friend right now. Her name is pronounced Deen-ee Moof-ling. A native New Yorker, Dini is a former journalist who’s penned three books and co-founded Love Heals, also known as The Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education. It’s been providing HIV education for over twenty years.
Dini, Stefani Greenfield, and Victoria Leacock Hoffman founded Love Heals after their friend, Alison Gertz, died of AIDS-related causes in 1992. Dini met Gertz at a dinner in New York while both women were attending college. Alison was twenty-two when she was diagnosed with AIDS. She had become infected through a single sexual encounter.
Alison became an activist, promoting HIV prevention at high schools and on college campuses. Soon after her death, Molly Ringwald portrayed Alison in the TV movie, Something to Live for: The Alison Gertz Story. At the end of the film’s credits, an AIDS information number appeared. My source tells me that it generated nearly 200,000 calls within twenty-four hours, mostly from women. The film stands as one of the important films of that era, along with Early Frost, Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, And the Band Played On, and Philadelphia.
Establishing Love Heals was a means for the women to honor Alison and keep her mission alive. Since its founding, Love Heals has reached more than 700,000 people.
On May 3, the annual Love Heals gala was held, once again, at New York’s legendary Four Seasons
Restaurant. The restaurant, which opened in 1956, will soon be closing its doors. Believe me, my darlings, many a “power lunch” has been chowed-down there!
Dini’s compassion developed in her childhood. Her mother was ill most of the time and Dini was her primary caregiver. The eldest of three, Dini’s father died when she was three. “I’m a nurturer by nature”—I’ve heard Dini say this several times.
We meet at noon at ABC Kitchen near Union Square, not far from where Ms. Ruby resided many moons ago in a loft with her artist boyfriend, Jimmy. Ah, those were hot days, but I digress….
Dini scoots up to the restaurant on her Broumpton bike, her primary means of transit around the Big Apple. She collapses the bike and schleps it into the eatery. We snuggle into a table near a large cement pillar.
Ruby Comer: What a light, airy place. [Scanning the menu] Well…the eats here are so fresh and organic! [We peruse the menu.] Dini, what’s the main focus of Love Heals?
Dini von Mueffling: Love Heals empowers young people to become leaders by instilling in them the knowledge, skills, and confidence to protect themselves and their communities from HIV. It is the leading provider of HIV and AIDS education in the New York City public schools.
We so need this….
We believe that HIV and AIDS education is the right of every person and that it should be taught in a safe, neutral, nonjudgmental environment. We value learning, diversity, respect for differing beliefs, tolerance, and individual empowerment to effect change both within the organization and without it. [Our waiter arrives and we order.]
Ruby, this disease shouldn’t exist anymore. Unfortunately, it’s a disease that carries so much shame and stigma and yet, one hundred percent preventable! [She pounds her fist on the table with passion.]
Communication is so important! The essential.
To prevent it, you must communicate. Talking about sex and drugs is not easy. When Ali was alive she’d speak to young people and ask them to pledge to find a friend and commit to taking care of each other. These are honest lifesaving conversations. The other biggie is that making good decisions is tied into having good self-esteem. Not easy. One of our Love Heals programs, LEAP, gets girls together every week to help them learn how to prevent HIV and also how to love themselves.
My…a very big task indeed. What’s the one thing you remember about Alison that stands out?
Her incredible passion for helping others to ensure that what happened to her would not happen to others. She was such a good friend. She was always so worried about how we were doing. Any one of us could have ended up like Ali, but for the grace of God….
Thank the Lordie! [Dini chows down on her fluke sashimi, while I dip into some roasted sun chokes—Jerusalem artichokes.] So the demographic of Love Heals is young folk. Oy! Difficult. Raging hormones, rebelliousness, peer pressure, and authority issues. How exactly do you make them listen?
There are several ways we reach our target audience. First, we try to match our speakers to our school’s demographic. In largely Black and Latino neighborhoods, the speakers are also Black and Latino. Second, our speakers are trained to answer any question. Young people have very finely tuned BS detectors. If someone is lying, they sense it. If we tell the audience that abstinence is the only way to prevent HIV, we’d lose them in five minutes. [Dini pauses and takes a short calming sigh.] You can hear a pin drop when our speakers take the stage, even in a packed room with teens. They have a powerful message.
I just got chills, Dini. [I fork a mouthful of my roasted Kabocha Squash Toast, a mix of ricotta, onions, maple syrup, and apple cider vinegar.] Say, do you remember when you first heard about AIDS?
I remember my mother talking to me about our family dermatologist, Dr. Friedman-Kein—whom I loved because he told me that Katharine Hepburn had bad eczema just like me. He said that this made me an extra-sensitive person. Back then AIDS was called GRID [gay-related immune deficiency] and he was raising money for research since so many people he knew were dying. He asked my mother to donate.
Whom do you consider champions in the epidemic?
The everyday champions are those who are living with HIV, trying to protect others, and those who volunteer for the cause. [She ponders while taking a bite of her kale salad.] That said, President Bill Clinton, Bono, and Elizabeth Taylor are champions. All three have done tremendous work in the field of AIDS and all stand out in their own way. Dame Taylor was extremely gracious. I cold-approached her in a restaurant to thank her for her work. Bono was a delight and he kissed my hand! [Dini cracks a colossal smile and her big browns sparkle.] President Clinton is the most charismatic person I’ve ever met. He truly makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room when you’re speaking with him.
The man’s dashing! Dini, your motto has always been “Turn fear into love.” Can you elaborate?
Nope. I want everyone to think about what it means. One hint: it works.
To connect with Love Heals, log on to: www.loveheals.org or contact the organization by phone at (212) 867-1117.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].