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Toronto's Red Dress Ball 2019: Fighting HIV/AIDS Stigma with "love and inclusiveness."

The topic of HIV/AIDS awareness has always been a difficult one. The stigma surrounding the disease is almost as old as the virus itself, and the implications caused by this fear and misinformation have had a devastating and lasting impact on HIV-positive people around the world.

Started in 1987, the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation (PWA) is one of many organizations, both old and new, dedicated to helping and supporting people living with HIV/AIDS. Since their conception, PWA has served as a vital resource to over 12 thousand clients.

Originally from Kenya, Muhaari Allan was diagnosed with HIV just over 12 years ago, and has been a PWA client since he immigrated to Canada in April of last year. Since then, he’s become a frequent volunteer with the organization, sharing his story around the GTA to promote HIV/AIDS education and awareness.

In a recent interview, Allan shared his story, including the struggle of trying to find treatment and support in a new country.

“When I came to this country, I realized that because I wasn’t documented, I couldn’t access healthcare services,” said Allan. “I didn’t have any insurance either, so that sort of made it very difficult in the initial days. I needed a family doctor, I needed a specialist, and I needed those things to happen quickly because I was running out of medication.”

Allan went on to describe the trial and error of his search, including his frustrations when the first options he looked into fell short, and his relief at discovering the support offered at PWA.

After contacting PWA, Allan was put in contact with a case worker who helped him get the support and the care he needed quickly. PWA provided crucial physical support, mental support, and even financial support when it was needed most.

“Now I work so I’m able to support myself, but that has only been made possible because PWA gave me that chance and that support in the beginning,” said Allan. “They got me a doctor, got me all these other supports, and here we are today.”

This level of support and dedication is not a cheap investment, however. Fundraising events play a big role in PWA’s sustainability.

This year marks the second annual Red Dress Ball, a third-party fundraiser to PWA’s primary event Friends for Life, which is a six-day, 600-kilometre bike rally from Toronto to Montreal. Set for April 13, the Red Dress Ball invites people to the grand ballroom at 519 Church Street for a night of celebration, theatrics and creativity, all while raising money and awareness for HIV/AIDS.

“It’s a little bit of an homage to the balls in the 80s and the 90s that were held to raise money for AIDS research,” said Barrett Morrison, one of the co-founders of the event, in a recent interview. “They would throw these parties, and everyone would dress in red or wear a red dress.”

Morrison started the ball last year, along with his partner Brandon Hamilton and their friend Matt Hyams, who is also an advocacy ambassador for the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research outside of planning the ball. The trio has been involved with PWA and other HIV/AIDS awareness organizations for years, and have many personal ties to the HIV-positive community through friends and partners.

“This space has really been a passion for all of us,” said Hyams in an interview earlier this month. “I think it's impossible to live your life as a gay man and not have conversations about HIV, and the way that it impacts people and your community, and the way it shapes the connections that we make with people and how we treat each other.”

Last year’s Red Dress Ball raised over 60 thousand dollars, with funds coming from ticket sales, refreshments, and a silent auction filled with items provided by local partners. Tickets for this year’s event are already sold out, and the event is set to raise over 100 thousand dollars towards the Friends for Life bike rally and PWA.

“The intention behind all this comes from a place of love and inclusiveness,” said Hyams. “And that's sort of the running theme that I think has made this all successful.”


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