My First Time with the AIDS Memorial Quilt

The first time I helped with the AIDS Memorial Quilt display was in December 2008.  I had only been working at Compass for a year and a half, and Compass’ new building in downtown Lake Worth was still under renovation.  At the time, the entire staff was divided into teams located in several caring organizations in Lake Worth. It was the height of the nation’s economic downturn and many non profits were closing their doors, churches were no exception.  One local church was struggling to maintain their door open, and as an effort to reduce cost they were forced to use their smaller chapel as they just could not afford to turn the lights on and worship in their beautiful larger chapel. However, when we approached them about hosting Compass’ Annual World AIDS Day quilt display in their front lawn, they welcomed us with arms wide open.

The morning before that December 1st, storm clouds threatened the vision of laying the quilt out on the front lawn even though Home Depot had donated plastic tarp to protect the quilt from the oncoming rain.  A last minute change and our hosting church, Calvary United Methodist Church, opened their hearts and the larger chapel and we began to carry the many panels and lay them over the pews inside. An act of God had turned an unplanned display into the most serendipitous event.

As mandated by the NAMES Project Foundation, caretakers of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, I was instructed how the panels should be connected, carried and displayed.  Once we were finished and all the volunteers had left, I walked up and down the rows of panels. Even though we were only displaying 160 panels of the over 48,000, I remember thinking how large the quilt appeared. Strolling silently, I took in the creativity of individual panels, the bright bold colors and textures, pieces of soft felt and shiny sequins. Most panels were made from the personal belongings of the people they memorialized: a worn motorcycle jacket, teddy bears, a set of keys, neckties, and even a set of tiny pajamas. Each panel was a very personal tribute to a victim of a frightening and incurable disease. The panels were obviously lovingly crafted, each one conveying the person’s interests and style, celebrating the lives of dear friends and loved ones.

My first thought when I saw the pajamas, was how many children had lost their parents to this disease. As I walked closer, the reality was the quilt panel was dedicated not from a small child, but for a six-year-old girl in Minnesota.  Suddenly, the quilt took on a deeper meaning. It was that moment I finally and truly understood not only that AIDS has no boundaries but also the powerful mission of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the largest folk art project in the world.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt offers a unique opportunity to educate people about HIV/AIDS and infection prevention, to remember those who have died, and to comfort the grieving and help them heal. By showing the humanity behind the statistics, The AIDS Memorial Quilt encourages compassion and inspires personal involvement in combating the AIDS epidemic. Thirty years ago, the first cases of HIV captured the world’s attention.  Countless individuals and organizations have devoted their lives to fighting the HIV epidemic and we need a renewed commitment of increased public attention and leadership to move forward together. World AIDS Day gives communities the opportunity to inspire renewed awareness and a hope for the cure.

Five years ago on World AIDS Day, I was fortunate enough to be part of a beautiful quilt display and it helped me realize the power behind the mission of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The fact is, I too have lost a loved one to the AIDS epidemic, a dear uncle who lost himself in drugs and was infected by sharing needles. And as painful as it is to me and my Catholic Latin-American family to talk about it, talking is the only way to spread the word. So, whether you choose to visit the World AIDS Day display at Compass in Lake Worth, Wilton Manor’s display or down in Miami, it is our collective responsibility to keep the conversation going. Until we reduce the stigma and misconceptions about the disease, the world will continue to be oblivious of the fact that we all personally know someone who is part of the quilt or will be some day.