Mighty in white
White Party fundraiser supports Trillium Health HIV clinic as researchers and caregivers push toward a breakthrough in controlling the disease
As people walk into the historic Century Club on East Avenue on September 7, they feel like you’ve entered a dream. Everything is in white—the guests, the furniture, the decorations, the food, the drink—all coordinated to create an ethereal atmosphere of celebration.
This scene is the vision of organizer Lisa Cove, who launched the first Rochester's White Party to support AIDS Care Rochester last year. Many larger cities host White Parties, all raising money for HIV care and research. The first such party, the invitation-only Dîner en Blanc of Paris, was first held twenty-five years ago. Today, it regularly draws more than 10,000 people who dine beneath the Eiffel Tower. “I wanted to do something unusual, not like every other black tie ball in Rochester,” recalls Cove, who was eager to bring the all-white ball to Rochester.
“I wanted it to be beautiful, to look like people floating around in clouds—but I didn’t want to hold it in a big, cavernous space. The Century Club has all these little spaces where people can go, mingle, and get to know one another.”
A year later, AIDS Care Rochester is rebranding itself as Trillium Health and expanding its services dramatically. Meanwhile, Cove is finding that the White Party has become more than a fleeting fantasy.
“We’ve gotten unsolicited calls from restaurants asking if they can donate food. We’ve heard from companies wanting to know how they can sponsor the event. Last year’s attendees have asked how they can be a part of it again,” she says.
Local clothing stores and rental shops, overwhelmed last year by requests for white apparel, have coordinated with Cove to be more prepared this time—though she urges potential partygoers not to be intimidated by the dress code. “You can do anything in white. People have gotten to be very creative. You can look in your closet and find something white to wear.”
Last year’s event sold out with over 340 tickets. This year’s event will increase the ticket sales to 400 attendees while creatively making use of more space at the club’s property. “We want to keep the party intimate as well as being sure to respect this beautiful East Avenue mansion,” says Cove.
Images from last year’s party have helped market the next one through an aggressive social media campaign. Traditional media—such as newspapers, magazines, and television—have given this distinct fundraiser much attention. It’s a spotlight needed for the cause of AIDS and HIV treatment as the staff at Trillium Health work toward a goal their profession is calling “an AIDS-free generation.”
A clinic with a difference
On the surface, Trillium Health, located in the Monroe Square building near Rochester’s Inner Loop, is like any other outpatient clinic. There’s a big, round nurses’ station in the center surrounded by several exam rooms not unlike where you might go when you have a fever or stomach ache.
The first difference you’ll notice is in the waiting room after you’ve been given a clipboard with a patient information form. Where you would usually be asked if you’re male or female, Trillium has a column for gender identity with five choices. There’s also a column for sexual orientation with five choices.
“We affirm who you are, who you are becoming, and who you may be in the future,” says Bill Valenti, staff physician and senior vice president for organizational advancement.
Money raised by the White Party goes into a special fund to cover patient expenses overlooked by private insurance and government assistance programs. “The White Party also helps build awareness and goodwill,” he says. “A successful event like this has value added that goes way beyond the amount of money raised. It helps get the word out about our programs in a way that’s really positive.”
That attention comes at a time when Trillium is reinventing itself. For thirty years, the clinic has been known as AIDS Care Rochester, providing lifelong care to those affected by HIV and AIDS. “An HIV diagnosis no longer implies universal mortality,” says Valenti. Thus the idea for Trillium Health was born. Instead of being a disease-focused clinic for HIV-positive patients, the center would expand its services to provide for the total health care needs of the LGBT community. AIDS care would remain an important program stream but would become one of many.
“We provide a very welcoming experience for people, very non-judgmental,” says Valenti. Trillium recognizes that patients might want to receive primary care elsewhere and offers an extensive referral network of LGBT-friendly physicians and participates in local health care conferences to raise awareness of the needs of the LGBT community.
Meanwhile, Trillium is gearing up to provide a full spectrum of services—from primary care, lab testing, sexual health, pre-exposure HIV prevention, nutrition, mental health counseling, a pharmacy, and even dentistry. To this end, Trillium is positioning itself to become a federally certified health center, qualifying it for a wider range of grants and attracting patients who are eligible for Medicaid subsidies.
These expanded services do not mean that Trillium has lost sight of its original goal of treating AIDS and controlling HIV. “In my field, we talk about ‘an AIDS-free generation’ or a ‘world without AIDS,’” reflects Valenti. “We have a lot of the tools coming together now that it might just be possible.”
“Events like the White Party let the community know that, indeed, we’re still here and there’s still work to be done,” he says. “The work is different, but we’re beginning to talk about what the endgame might look like.”
Tickets for the White Party, held September 7 at the Century Club of Rochester (566 East Avenue) at are $125 and include food, drink, and entertainment. For information on how to participate, see rochesterswhiteparty.com. You can also follow the event’s Facebook page to receive regular updates.
The evolution of HIV care
HIV is short for human immunodeficiency virus, while AIDS is the abbreviation for aquired immune deficiency syndrome. Both are sides of the same coin. The disease spreads through contact with bodily fluids, not through the air or by casual touch. Needle share programs and blood bank screenings have brought transmission under control among drug users and transfusion patients; unprotected sex remains the primary means by which HIV is contracted.
When HIV and AIDS first made headlines in the eighties and nineties, the disease was associated with homosexuality, reinforcing negative social stigmas that drove sufferers underground and away from treatment that could extend and improve their lives. AIDS Care Rochester and similar clinics elsewhere were founded to reverse this trend. Any HIV treatment program has two main purposes: treating individual patients and preventing the spread of the disease. The first requires that HIV positive patients be identified early and placed on a daily course of three medications that slow down virus production. The second requires that clinic services be available to anyone who might come in contact with the disease, including HIV-negative partners, same sex or otherwise.
The success rate of HIV treatment has improved since the AIDS scare a generation ago, but control of the disease depends on participation within the communities that are at risk. Medical researchers believe that an HIV vaccine could be possible soon. Twenty years ago, the University of Rochester Medical Center was the first in the country to begin testing a possible vaccine. The program has tested 1,500 in eighty vaccine trials.
Learn more about this effort at rochestervictoryalliance.org.
Mark Gillespie is Editor-in-Chief of (585).