I was on hand to support my childhood friend Michelle Simek who is the Bilingual AIDS Treatment Educator at AIDS Project Los Angeles. I also had the added bonus of seeing people I admire and respect also get awards. At the very last minute, or as church folks say “late in the midnight hour”, I was asked to photograph the event.
The event was held at the Congo Room at LA LIVE in Downtown Los Angeles. The Congo Room came on the social scene in 1998 and quickly earned the reputation as “the house of blues for Latin Music” The co-founders of this celebrity hot spot include the likes of Jimmy Smits, Jenifer Lopez, Shelia E and Will-I-Am, just to drop a few names.
The Congo Room was a rather dramatic and some say “extreme” departure from the beautiful grounds of the California Endowment, also in Downtown Los Angeles adjacent to our world famous Union Station. Which hosted the Leadership Awards in the past and prides itself in offering unmatched services that are very friendly to the HIV and health services communities.
However on this night the awards would take place in the shadows of pre-Emmy Awards events taking place at the Nokia Theater in the same LA LIVE Complex. On this night there were no red carpets, no fancy banners, no glitz and no glam. In fact when I arrived just an hour before the awards presentation the room was not set up. I actually thought I was in the wrong place.
But as the women who received honors on this night will tell you, the work they do most times is not pretty. The things they face are hard and difficult and far away from the bright lights and red carpets of Hollywood and LA LIVE. I’m sure all the women who received this honor would have been happy getting the award at the local Norms, because the work they do isn’t about any fancy, Hollywood hot spots, but about the people they work to serve day in and day out without fail and without complaint.
I happen to know many of the women who received the awards very well. Many of them work on Skid Row and areas that are considered ground zero for new HIV infections and AIDS deaths here in Los Angeles. Many of them work in areas considered to be unsafe, in tight spaces, sharing their tight cramped cubical with other programs working to serve people who are often seen, but not heard. Often spoken about on CDC reports, but not heard from or represented very well at any HIV or AIDS conference.
These women are the backbone of HIV care here in Los Angeles for populations hardest hit. Many spend their own money trying to better serve their clients. They show up early and stay very late because they know that many men, women and children are depending on them, their smiling face, their great care and compassion, but most of all their offering them hope and giving them strength for another day.
I heard stories from patients who say they are here today because of the outstanding, unmatched and positive care that they’ve received from their doctor. One young woman even said she and her mother are alive today because of the compassion and great care of her doctor who was being recognized.
I watched as this young woman tried to stop the wall of tears from falling down her face as my friend Shellye spoke of her. She said she feels she hasn’t done anything to be given such an honor, but let me tell you, this young woman, whom I met several months ago, has done more for people living with HIV than most case managers I know. She is a beacon of hope and a proud image for all young people to look up to.
My friend Thelma and fellow warrior on the front lines fighting for people living with HIV introduced someone I’ve had the honor of getting to know and work side by side with for several months now. She works in an area that most won’t even speed through. Daily she shows up and tries her best to bring hope and care to woman on Skid Row battling HIV, homelessness, addiction, abuse and so much more.
I know the harshness of Skid Row and I know many people just battling through homelessness do not make it out in their right mind or even with their lives. I also know that having HIV down on Skid Row can very much be the death sentence that we know it is not. But because of people like her who are willing to work in areas like Skid Row, there is hope for people who are battling HIV or AIDS in an area I refer to as a war zone. Where life can be lost in a matter of seconds, where a call for help often goes unanswered.
These women, many of whom are my friends, represent the best that the field of HIV has to offer. The women are the very reason why Los Angeles is the only place with the distinction of being called the City of Angels. Daily these women, these “angels”, wake up, spread their wings and fly into battle for populations hardest hit by HIV and AIDS. I know all of these women do this work not to be recognized or have their names called. I know many of them could command higher pay and far better working conditions then they currently have, but they do this hard work for less pay, less recognition because they fully understand what it means to be of service to someone in need. They fully understand that we as humans are only as strong as our weakest link.
To all the women whom I have the pleasure of working with and even calling my friends let me say THANK YOU for your service to humanity. Thank you for putting the lives of those who suffer the most and carry the heaviest of burdens when it comes to HIV and AIDS at the front of the line. Thank you for your great care, thank you for your long days and nights. Thank you for suiting up and showing up for populations hardest hit by HIV and AIDS each and every day.
I’d be remiss if I did not thank all the community partners, liaisons and companies and their representatives who helped to sponsor this event.
Photos from the event can be viewed on my Flickr page.