We Care Weekend is in its 14th year, and much has changed in that time. AIDS went from being an epidemic in the United States to seemingly an afterthought in that time period, but even so, We Care has grown. The weekend in its first year raised $6,000 for the Quad Cities AIDS Coalition, and now it brings in $40,000 for AIDS Project Quad Cities.

But even though We Care Weekend - which features a candlelight walk on Friday night and includes events at Mary's, Liquid, Augie's, and J.R.'s nightclubs throughout the weekend - has been a steady source of funds for the organization, the disease's disappearance from the public eye is cause for concern.

In the United States, many people with HIV have access to effective treatments, and most news coverage of AIDS concerns its prevalence in Africa. As a result, convincing people of the seriousness of the AIDS problem in the United States has become more challenging in recent years.

Activism on the issue of AIDS was spurred by quick and seemingly inevitable death for people who contracted it, but new treatments have meant that a younger generation doesn't view AIDS as a death sentence. "We've been blessed that our clients are living longer," said Steve Stickle, executive director of AIDS Project Quad Cities. On the downside, "the sense of urgency has disappeared."

"You don't want to frighten people to death, but it's one of those things that if you don't see it, you don't have to deal with it," said Marion Meginnis, president of the board of directors for AIDS Project Quad Cities and general manager and president of WQAD Channel 8.

Regardless, there is still an AIDS problem in the Quad Cities and the United States. AIDS Project Quad Cities typically has approximately 160 active clients and serves between 180 and 200 people in a year in a 28-county area in Iowa and Illinois. But effective treatments have brought new challenges; many people with HIV are now getting hepatitis because they're living longer and the risk factors for both are similar. People with hepatitis cannot take stronger AIDS drugs because of the increased risk of liver failure.

AIDS Project Quad Cities has a budget of approximately $330,000, half of which comes from the federal and state governments. Roughly 15 percent comes from grant money, and the remaining 35 percent comes from private donations, including from fundraisers. Events such as We Care Weekend are important because they provide "unrestricted" funds, while grant and government money is typically tied to specific programs and services. We Care money helps pay the salaries of case managers and provides direct assistance to clients. AIDS Project Quad Cities might give a low-income client money for his or her deductible for medication, for example, or help find that person a place to live.

Unfortunately, there are no reliable statistics on the number of people with HIV in the Quad Cities. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that for every known case of HIV infection, one or two go unreported. Stickle said that although he would be able to guess how many people are infected with HIV in his organization's service area, "I don't feel I have any good science to back me up."

"That's pretty much true with just about any disease you'd want to talk about," Meginnis said. "It's very hard, and it's very frustrating. I'm sure there are people we're not reaching."

We Care Weekend was started in 1989 by a small group of people. "This whole effort began because people saw a need," Meginnis said. "There was no money. ... This whole fundraising effort began in the gay community."

Public perception of the disease has changed somewhat; most people now understand that it's not just a disease contracted by gay men. Yet the fundraising mechanisms remain centered on gay-friendly clubs. "You have to have the greatest respect for the people who've supported you through the years," Meginnis said.

AIDS is also being perceived differently within the gay community. An older generation of gay men lost many friends and partners to AIDS, but people under 40 have had a different experience because of the effectiveness of new treatments.

In some ways, We Care is an ideal forum to reach that younger generation. Although "a lot of the energy to organize it [We Care Weekend] is coming from the 40-to-60 crowd," Stickle said, the use of bars and nightclubs gives the organization the opportunity to reach younger people.

But Meginnis stressed that We Care is not a "gay" event. "Join us," she said. "Your children are at risk as well."

To learn more about AIDS Project Quad Cities or for a list of We Care events, visit (http://www.qconline.com/apqc) or call (309)788-5698.

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