27 Years Of AID & Comfort

When the first AID & Comfort came about in 1988, even its founders couldn’t have envisioned that their enhanced Christmas party, with its auctioning off of decorated wreaths and trees, would still be around 27 years later. Or that the AIDS crisis from which it had sprung would turn into a more or less manageable disease. Or that the gala itself, created to benefit people with HIV and AIDS, would morph into Santa Fe’s annual version of Truman Capote’s notorious Black + White Ball of 1966—complete with drag queens and urban cowboys, locals and locos, baroque buffets, and live auctions that were more Fellini than Sotheby’s and that left behind the wreaths—pretty as they were—for bigger-ticket items like original works of art, dinners, massages, and trips out of town. Or that it would become the signature fundraiser for Dr. Trevor Hawkins’ Southwest Care, which he’d founded in 1996 in response to the AIDS epidemic. Or that it would not only survive but thrive—raising upwards of $1 million since 1988, money that has gone always—always, 100 percent of it—to the people most in need of it, for everything from co-pays for medications to transportation to doctors’ offices to lab work and imaging. But even as AID & Comfort grew, and continues to evolve, it has always stayed true to two things: raising money for those who need it, and creating and celebrating community.

“It’s the safety net of the safety net,” says SC’s CEO Jeff Thomas of the Gala and the money it brings in. Thomas took over from his predecessor David Barrett eight years ago next January, and he’s been to every A&C since 2007. “The Aid & Comfort money has always gone to support the unmet health care needs not covered by health insurance, government funding or other programs. It really is used for those things that can’t be covered elsewhere.”

But a couple things changed since the Gala came into being. First, as the mortality rates declined and more people were able to live with HIV than were dying from AIDS, A&C and its ancillary support organizations—Case Management, Santa Fe Cares, the Whitney Project and others—consolidated with SC. “Ultimately,” says Thomas, “SC is an amalgam of all these different community-based organizations over the years.”Second, as HIV shifted from a perceived public health emergency into something less acute, Thomas and the SC board realized that their core mission needed to evolve as well. While maintaining its judgment-free approach to health care, in 2013 SC merged with the Women’s Health Services. “We decided,” says Thomas, “to expand into primary care. To address the unmet needs where we can, and for as many as we can.”

When Thomas came onboard, SC had about 400 patients and 30 employees. Today, SC provides care and services to over 10,000 patients and has well over 130 employees. They now cover primary care the lifespan for people living in Santa Fe and surrounding communities, from prenatal care to geriatric services.  They also continue to provide specialized services to people living with HIV throughout New Mexico. And they have about 30 clinical trials going on, half of which involve HIV. (The other half of those trials involve this era’s equally scary epidemic, Hepatitis C, where an estimated 30-40,000 people are living with it here in New Mexico—ten times the number of people who have HIV.)
“We’re more than just the SCC of 10 years ago,” says Thomas. “We take care of people who are economically, socially and culturally vulnerable. And just as we have evolved to be similarly inclusive, in keeping with the diversity of our population, we’re redefining the purpose of AID & Comfort. So it’s more than just an AIDS benefit now. It’s to help our most vulnerable patients, irrespective of their diagnosis or health status. We’re broadening the scope.”

Still, as broad as SC’s mission—and its Gala—may get, it’ll never lose sight of its true focus: community. Giving people a sense of hope. Recognizing and celebrating and remembering those who’ve passed and supporting those who are still here. And doing so with the utmost of élan and savoir faire, and, in its own way, very much in keeping with the spirit of its founders, who seemed to realize, almost intuitively, what all that AIDS-era partying otherwise signified: that the “nightlife,” as Out writer M. Sharkey so well put it in a review of a recent New York exhibit titled Party Out of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980, “played refuge to an embattled community and provided crucial cathartic release.”
“The fact that SC’s mission has expanded and the Gala has expanded its reach is really just an extension of what it’s all about—community,” says former A&C board chair Al Lama, who relocated a year ago to Washington D.C., but will be back in town for this year’s Gala. “And that it has survived and continued to thrive—unlike so many other fundraises like this, which usually have a shelf life of ten years or so—that says something about the event and the people behind it and the people in the community who support it.”
Besides, for those who still see it as a fundraiser for people with HIV, so be it. Those people can earmark their contributions specifically for that group—or whatever disease or cause they choose. What’s important is going. Or giving. And having fun. “It was started by people who really did care—about other people and about their community,” stresses Lama. “That’s what makes it so special and fun.”

And not to worry. “This is a Santa Fe party,” says Thomas. “It’s been a Santa Fe party. It’ll remain a Santa Fe party.”