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Laguna Beach Marks World AIDS Day at Main Beach

Local organizations were on hand Saturday encouraging people to get tested for HIV, and offering information about AIDS prevention and treatment.

At Main Beach on Saturday, the grass lawn was covered with quilts which memorialized local men and women who have died from AIDS.

Laguna Beach HIV advisory committee member Amy Givan strolled next to quilts and read each one. She came to Main Beach on World AIDS Day to offer any information she could to visitors who happened to pass by, and to those who had come to get a free and confidential AIDS test.

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"I consider myself a concerned citizen," said Givan. "I want to help. I want to participate, and I want AIDS to go to zero like everybody else."

Givan's thoughts went along with the theme for World AIDS Day, which is "Getting to Zero: Zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, zero AIDS-related deaths."

Givan explained that the turnout had been great, with walk-by traffic made up of both straight and gay people. 

Volunteer Michael Marzo worked at the Orange County AIDS Services Foundation table by handing out literature and condoms. His brother died of AIDS in 1985.

"My brother didn't have the means of knowing [about the disease] like this," said Marzo, as he pointed to brochures on the table. "This is to help people be safe. I feel like if I can give somebody...one person, two people or three...literature today, I can make them aware."

OCASF works to prevent the spread of AIDS and also offers services to assist AIDS patients. They offer free and confidential AIDS testing.

Orange County Shanti case manager Bruce Vancil spoke with visitors about AIDS and what OCS has to offer. 

"I work for Shanti," said Vancil, "to help people get through an illness that is devastating, but beatable."

Assisting more than 1,200 Orange County residents infected with or affected by AIDS/HIV, Orange County Shanti offers case management, home delivered meals, transportation, counseling, and other services.

Pharmacist Michelle Sherman of Laguna Drug  offered advice and information to people who approached her table. She sees two to three new AIDS patients each month. 

"I'm here today," said Sherman, "to memorialize the people whom we've lost. I personally have lost hundreds and hundreds of patients over the past 20 years. This [event] is for them. Also, it's a celebration in solidarity with all those living with HIV."

"What I do as a pharmacist and what we do as a pharmacy," said Sherman, "is such a key part of somebody living with HIV...taking care of the medications and making sure they take everything correctly, with no problems or side effects. It's absolutely critical for us to be here. We're part of the HIV community here in Laguna Beach and Orange County as a whole."

Sherman believes every person needs to get tested because AIDS "hasn't gone away." Early detection is very important so that people can get into care and get treated quickly and they can prevent the spread of the disease. Early treatment allows AIDS patients to live healthier lives with less complications.

"There's not a lot in the media anymore about HIV and AIDS," said Sherman. "The general perception for the community at large is that AIDS happened back in the '80s, and it isn't a big thing and it only happens to gay men. That's such a misconception. It can happen to anybody."

"Kids are having sex no matter what," said Sherman, "and the least thing you can do is protect them. Let them understand, when they make those decisions, how they can protect themselves."

Sherman has a website, which offers a holistic view of AIDS treatment.

Laguna Beach HIV advisory council member Brian Sadler brought his personal collection of memorial quilts that are duplicates of the large quilts in Atlanta, Georgia.

"These are local people [represented on the quilts, and their] families want to have a local connection so they can come and visit their panels a lot easier than getting the [large Atlanta quilts] out here. The more these are seen, the more people realize the importance of them. Most of these people I knew personally. Sometimes it's really hard for me to look at them, but it's one of those things where it's a bittersweet pain. I have to keep their memories alive."

Sadler offers to display the quilts at churches, schools, Boys & Girls Clubs, and for anyone who is interested.

Supervisor of anonymous HIV testing at Laguna Beach Community Clinic, Kim de St. Paer, said volunteers had been testing individuals all day. She believed at least 75 had been confidentially tested for free.

"It's been wonderful," said de St. Paer. "They've been every age ... men, women ... every orientation. We've had a lot of high school kids come in, which I'm very happy about. Some people who were very scared and worried came with their partners. I'm really thrilled because, by testing, they know their status."

De St. Paer explained that when people find out early if they are HIV positive, they have a better chance at a normal life span between 70-80 years. If they don't find out, they could be dead in 5-10 years. By not knowing if they're positive, they could infect more and more people.

According to de St. Paer, HIV/AIDS numbers are increasing more significantly among teens and individuals over 50.

"The staff at Laguna Beach High School has been very good about AIDS education," said de St. Paer. "We tell the high school students, if both people test at the beginning of a relationship, it's a way of saying, 'I care about you, I won't hurt you, I respect you.' If someone's not willing to test, that means you don't have to waste 10 years [with them]. You understand they don't respect you up front. Testing is a gift to oneself ... and a part of self-respect."

Some Laguna Beach Community Clinic clients are now going to law school, graduate school, and running triathlons because they found out they were HIV positive early and started treatment.

De St. Paer said, "We're here today to celebrate those who passed away and those living with HIV. We're here also to fight the stigma. These people who died, who gave their bodies to research, who tried the new drugs ... they are why people can live today if they find out they're infected. I think it's important to honor those people who died for us."

After sunset, a group of about 20 people gathered at Main Beach and held a candlelight vigil in memory of those loved ones who had passed from HIV/AIDS.

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