FERNDALE – Since 1987, the NAMES Project has inspired people around the world to be more aware of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Each patch of the quilt is in honor of someone who died from the disease. Their giant AIDS Memorial Quilt last covered Washington Mall in 1996, and has now grown so large that it can no longer be assembled in one place. Sections of the quilt travel the country, and on Dec. 4 in Ferndale, an emotional opening for one such display took place at Affirmations.
There were speakers talking about the quilt and the disease that has claimed so many lives. The Sing Out Detroit Choir sang about hope and remembrance, and people looked in awe at the 12-by-12-foot handmade panels which hung from ceiling to floor.
There are over 5,000 panels in the ever-growing collection. That’s over 45,000 names remembered.
Shirley Gaulzetti was one name out of eight on a panel on the wall. Gaulzetti’s family took part in the memorial. Daughters Janita and Lisa, along with son Joe, read a speech their mother had given to a church congregation shortly before dying of an AIDS-related illness. In 1988, the family learned that their mother had been infected with HIV from a blood transfusion. She died on Nov. 24, 1995.
“Mom saw the quilt at Cobo Hall in the early 90’s and said ‘I want my name on one.’ And you always listen to your mom,” Janita said with both a smile and tears on her face. The patch they embroidered for their mother held the same words of advice she gave to the congregation in her speech: Fear less. Love more. Judge no one. Care openly.
With the LGBT center’s community room full of supportive listeners, audience members were encouraged to share their stories. Ryan Oliver of Detroit, who works with youth at Affirmations, stood up and spoke about an HIV-positive young man he met at the center. “It breaks my heart,” Oliver said, “that a youth who is just 16 years old is dealing with abuse and neglect, and on top of it found out he is HIV positive. And this kid gets up every day and he goes to school every day. And he does what he needs to do.”
Though amazed at the strength of this young man, Oliver has also found himself in an even more personal position to empathize with the young victims of abuse, disease and social ostracism. Less than a month ago, Oliver’s father passed away from AIDS, after hiding the fact that he had the disease for more than 20 years. “He told us that he had cancer,” Oliver said. “He was so ashamed and so afraid of the stigma that he didn’t tell anyone about it, not even his family. He was a dialysis technician back in the ’80s and he got pricked drawing blood. But back then AIDS was seen as a disease for gay people and drug addicts, so he felt like he couldn’t tell anyone else.”
Counseling and education has come a long way since the 1980s, and people from many backgrounds continue to speak out about the disease. One Detroit couple who has been living together with AIDS and devoting their time to education and counseling is Felix and Paula Sirls. The couple met in San Francisco where Felix was doing AIDS counseling. He had contracted HIV while working as a vocational nurse in California at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Paula came in for counseling services and before long, the two fell in love. Together they have nine children and 14 grandchildren who are all HIV negative.
“I’ve been positive over 30 years,” Felix said. “There was a time when people with AIDS didn’t have hope. We are AIDS activists, but everyone has their own thing. And our goal is to help people who already have AIDS by keeping them alive and giving them hope.”
As an HIV tester and counselor in Detroit, Felix and his associates deal with five to seven positive test results per week. “So at least once a week each counselor has to sit down and tell one person to their face that they are infected with HIV.”
“When I look at that quilt, I get angry and upset and happy at the same time,” he said. Those emotions are expressed both in his work and in the spoken-word performances that he and Paula do to help encourage AIDS awareness. She sings while he reads poetry about his experiences.
Another activist in the audience fights AIDS in her own way, by teaching senior citizens how to have safe sex. “As people become widows and widowers they get back into the dating scene, and many don’t know about this kind of stuff,” says Julia LaPonse, a grandmother of 17 kids who used to volunteer filling condom orders for Midwest AIDS Prevention Project, now known as the Michigan AIDS Coalition. “Senior homes are one of the places where AIDS is spreading, but just like any place else, seniors think it can never happen to them.”
LaPonse’s daughter Kathleen Gerus-Darbison is the co-founder of Stitches, a doll project that shares the stories of women with HIV through an exhibit of handmade dolls. She learned of her infection in 1985 and has since been working in AIDS prevention and awareness ever since.
“Projects like this help so that people will not be forgotten,” Gerus-Darbison said. “These dolls will go on to speak for them once they’re gone, just like the AIDS quilt helps people remember.”