Project Response Uncorks Magic Along Florida’s Space Coast
Text and Photos by Sean Black
Let’s pretend for a moment how the ageing characters of the 1960s hit TV show I Dream Of Jeannie would have rallied for the care and rights of persons with AIDS as the devastation of the disease washed upon the sandy shores of Florida’s Cocoa Beach.
With a starched pencil skirt and bouffant lacquered in Adorn, Dr. Bellow’s trophy wife Amanda would surely pave the way for proper care-giving etiquette. Perhaps the socially esoteric housewife would corral the women in her bridge club to put down the gin martinis to stitch a panel for the AIDS Quilt or whip up a tasty dish for an ailing neighbor in need.
Maybe retired astronauts and fellow Air Force Majors Tony Nelson and Roger Healey would aid their fellow man by opting out of a daily round of golf to instead volunteer for the local hospice.
Better yet: Imagine Jeannie, the fantastical temptress herself, jiggling across the dated lime-green shag and decimating the entire plight of the pandemic with a simple crossing of her arms, followed by a dramatic blink and deliberate toss of her frosty blonde wiglet. Amusing yet preposterous I admit, but how is it that we still haven’t found a cure for AIDS when we are capable of launching manned spacecrafts to and from the moon?
Returning from outer space to our earthly reality and putting campy nostalgia aside, Florida’s Space Coast, named for its proximity to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, is home to more than an industry of genuine technological advancement, fodder for sci-fi connoisseurs and the memorable iconic sitcom that put it on the map. It is home to an AIDS service organization known as Project Response.
Started in 1990 by a handful of compassionate individuals, Project Response was an early “response” to the increasing number of AIDS cases in Brevard County and its surrounding Central Florida communities. By the late 1980s instances of HIV infection to full-blown AIDS began multiplying outside the confines of the concentrated metro-meccas like Miami, Atlanta and New York. Young men and women often returned home to smaller towns as their dreams of independence and longevity were vanquished by the evil Djinn of AIDS.
Project Response, like so many other grass-roots ASOs in rural and semi-rural areas, began as a volunteer agency that operated from modest shared office space. “It was a tiny little building that we finally grew out of,” reports former executive director Jimmie Bevis in her country momma drawl. Jimmie worked for Project Response for many years. Along with Dick Miller, Jack Johnson, and Gerald Davis, who have all since passed from AIDS, Jimmie, now retired and close to eighty-two, was one of the early pioneers. “Shug,” as her friends and clients still lovingly refer to her as, helped build this safe haven now serving over 1,500 individuals.
In the early days, Shug organized and facilitated what she calls Healing Circles. “People thought I was weird. I would tell my clients to go hug a tree because trees have such incredible healing energy.” Through this creative love and optimism in finding non-traditional treatments to comfort those dealing with AIDS, Shug, like one of her heroines Louise Hay [A&U, April 2010], championed unconventional methodologies with the best intentions in the world. “We would place our hands over our loved one, centered in the circle, and I would say, ‘I want you to feel the healing from our hearts.’ I believe in positive thinking and the power of affirmations.”
Today Project Response operates from two main centers and three satellite offices. It not only makes it possible for individuals facing a multitude of hardships to get on with the business of healthy living, its members involve themselves in the community by providing testing, counseling, stigma reduction initiatives, and prevention education.
“I don’t have control over a person’s [HIV] status when they come in to our offices to get tested but I do have control over their health outcomes from that point on,” passionately states director of operations Christine “Chris” Hackford. She has been with Project Response for over seventeen years and is proud that the agency has expanded its outreach beyond Brevard County to include Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin, and Okeechobee Counties. The ASO has an aggressive geographic spread, spanning over 4,500 square miles and bridging the massive east coast corridor between Volusia and Palm Beach counties. Of particular note, Project Response sponsors an average of twenty-five children annually to attend Camp Heartland in Minnesota, a summer camp for kids living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.
Because of this high level of commitment and pride, Roberto Ortiz, Project Response’s current executive director, along with Chris Hackford play active roles in monitoring two of the most critical aspects of the agency’s mission respectively: first, its ability to financially maintain and operate while best serving its case management clients, and second, the ability to accurately collect data, analyze statistical information, and respond to the local HIV testing trends in an appropriate and timely fashion.
“How we continue to operate and serve our existing population with less funding,” says Ortiz, is Project Response’s biggest challenge, the same top concern for so many other ASOs across the country.
“More people are needing assistance while our existing client base is living longer,” continues Ortiz in a distinctly Bronx inflection. Of particular concern to him is a recent piece of legislation being considered by Florida State Governor Rick Scott and Florida legislators regarding a Florida Department of Health proposal to reduce income eligibility requirements for the state’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) from 400 percent of the federal poverty level to 200 percent, thus disqualifying some from life-saving benefits. States Ortiz: “Some of our clients have already relocated to other states based on fear.”
According to a recent June report, Florida’s Bureau of HIV/AIDS notes that the Sunshine State has over 3,500 people on its ADAP waiting list, making it the longest by far in the United States.
The question Ortiz is asked by so many of his clients is a simple one, and he presents it simply during our interview, “How do I continue to live?” Ortiz, who considers himself “old school” with his in-your-face brand of activism, utilizes a hands-on approach, which took root in his native Westchester County, New York, hometown through working with the homeless, sex workers, and substance abusers. “I remember advocating in the earlier days for condom distribution and the crowd was so vicious that I had a person spit at me,” he says.
On a personal note Ortiz and his wife have been greatly impacted by HIV. “We have had to say goodbye to way too many friends,” he shares. Looking for solutions, Ortiz believes the next step going forward in tackling our funding crisis is for consumer representation at the governmental table. “I am hoping that support groups will partner with us and get involved at the legislative level. No more Silent Voice.”
Ortiz insists on ending our conversation by crediting important sources of strength and success within the organization: “Many of our volunteers and board members are also clients who are integral participants in our collective hard work and philanthropic mission. They are giving of themselves and their time. They stock the food pantry, prepare schedules, and answer the phones. Our clients are not victims—they are active members of our community.”
One such active member and current vice president of the board is Daniel Pearce, who just turned sixty, though you’d have never guessed it by his playful energetic zeal. Daniel is a longtime survivor of AIDS and has been a client of Project Response since 1993. He knows all too well the struggles related to a life involving HIV and brings compassion with his service work. Ironically, Daniel, like many others living longer lives with HIV, faces normal challenges of growing older, something he never expected he would get to do. “I’ve had a heart attack and skin cancer; things that life throws at normal people everyday,” he says.
Daniel is fortunate, too, as he was able to contribute many years of work and establish a comfortable base salary prior to having to go on medical disability. “I am blessed,” says Daniel who volunteers on Wednesdays, providing a reassuring tone that greets incoming calls. Besides his comforting voice, it is his noticeable concern for others that entrants see when they step into the brightly colored building, alive with the pictures and memories of many unforgotten heroes. Project Response showcases the valuable lives of those who have died from AIDS through the display of numerous Quilt panels, albums of photographs, and a memorial library bearing a plaque dedicated to the memory of George Foster, a loving soul who like so many died far too young. Daniel is busy planning for this year’s fundraising gala celebrating Project Response’s twenty-first anniversary. “We are hoping our silent auction will be a huge success and bring in the necessary dollars to displace the major funding cuts,” Daniel contends. He also notes: “This year we are really depending on our community to come out and show support for us as they always seem to do.”
Project Response exceeds what it set out to do over twenty years ago. It is rocketing beyond its two-fold mission by enhancing the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS and preventing the further spread of the disease by reducing fear, ignorance, and discrimination surrounding AIDS. Space Coast residents don’t have to scour the beaches in search of a sacred lantern to rub or a precious bottle to uncork in the hopes of unleashing a powerful life-giving force. Project Response is a magical genie granting wishes abundantly every day.
Sean Black is a writer and photographer based in Florida. He may be contacted by e-mail via his Web site: www.seangblack.com.