By GLENN RUTHERFORD
It’s been two decades since eight Presentation Academy friends — four of them religious sisters — recognized the scope of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the city and took a giant step to help.
They formed the House of Ruth, a non-profit, community-based organization created to help HIV/AIDS victims and their families.
In the 20 years that have passed since the House of Ruth was born, the visibility of the epidemic has faded a bit — but that disappearance is an illusion.
The people of House of Ruth — Executive Director Lisa Sutton; Director of Development Cindy Good; Program Director Katie McCarthy and the rest of the staff — want everyone to know that, unfortunately, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still a reality.
The disease is still spreading; new cases are identified at the rate of about one a day.
People across the city, especially in its most urban, most deprived neighborhoods, are still suffering because of the disease and its effects on families.
And prejudice against HIV/AIDS victims is still rampant.
“It’s a challenge for us to make sure that people know AIDS hasn’t gone away,” Sutton said in an interview last week at the agency’s campus at 607 E. St. Catherine St. “Especially for lower-income people in the central, inner-city part of Louisville. HIV/AIDS remains a health crisis here and in every inner-city in America.”
And so, as much as they would like to be “out of business,” the need for the services provided by House of Ruth continues to grow. That’s why the Nov. 28 “Dining Out for Life” is such an important event for the organization and for the community.
“It’s our largest fund-raising effort each year,” Cindy Good explained. “Last year we set a record when ‘Dining Out for Life’ raised $96,000.”
This year, 58 local restaurants will donate all or a portion of their funds from meals served that day to House of Ruth. (For a complete list of participating restaurants, visit www.diningoutforlife.com/louisville.)
“It’s a really important event for us,” Good said, “because so many people think the disease no longer exists. They think of Magic Johnson (the professional basketball player who announced he had the disease in 1991 and has effectively controlled it with medication ever since).
“They think people have just taken pills and the disease has gone away,” she added.
But it hasn’t.
House of Ruth now serves more than 1,300 individuals in the Louisville area, including about 300 children — 25 percent of whom are infected by the disease themselves. The agency provides housing for some clients, transportation, food vouchers, help with utility payments and all manner of guidance for families affected by the continuing epidemic.
“It continues, to this day, to be a disease that can affect anyone,” Katie McCarthy explained. “People would be shocked to know that the portion of our community with the fastest-growing HIV rate is senior citizens, followed really closely by African American females.”
Infidelity — “when someone isn’t nearly as faithful as you think they are” — and a continued willingness to engage in unprotected sex has fueled the AIDS fire, McCarthy noted.
“We see female clients all the time who had no idea that they were at risk,” she added.
The staff of House of Ruth said they hear, far too often, of incidents of prejudice and discrimination against their clients and others infected with the AIDS virus.
“You wouldn’t think that in 2012 there would still be people in this community who are afraid to shake the hands of an HIV/AIDS-positive person,” McCarthy said, incredulously. “But it’s true; in this day and age there’s still that kind of prejudice, that lack of knowledge, out there.”
So, prejudice is still rampant, but most importantly, so are HIV and AIDS. That’s what House of Ruth’s leaders want the community to remember. That’s why they became partners with the Frazier History Museum and its exhibit on Diana, Princess of Wales. And that’s why they continue to need financial support from local individuals and businesses so they can serve the ever-growing number of people who need their help.
“There’s no question that the need outstrips the resources,” said Good, the development director.
And there’s no question that HIV/AIDS remains an epidemic, Sutton said.
“Yes, people are living longer with HIV/AIDS, if they have the resources to fight it,” she noted. “If you have HIV, your ability to fight off other diseases is compromised, so your ability to work is diminished. If you’re not working at full capacity, your income decreases and then you lose your health insurance and the downward spiral begins.”
All because of a disease that many people stopped thinking about years ago, the women said.
House of Ruth serves “a disproportionate number of people of color in this community, because that’s where the illness is having the most significant impact,” Sutton explained. “It’s not like the AIDS movement of 25 years ago when gay men were the most dramatically impacted, and they were vocal about it. Now we find there’s a real reluctance to disclose that you have the disease within the communities where the virus is having the greatest impact now. People feel stigmatized and discriminated against.
So, even after two decades, House of Ruth continues to need support. A portion of their $1.2 million annual budget comes in the form of federal grant and program dollars, but local donations from individuals, organizations and businesses remain critical to their mission.
The Cathedral of the Assumption and other Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Louisville continue to support House of Ruth, Sutton said, and the organization’s ties to the local church “are well established and appreciated.”
It’s help they will continue to need. And on Nov. 28 with “Dining Our for Life,” the rest of the community can continue to provide assistance, too.