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“Twenty-five years ago, the AIDS plague was raging, and people were dying right and left. Community AIDS Network (CAN) was founded by two amazing people, Susan Terry and Dr. Jeffrey Stall, in a dark, depressing little building on East Avenue. Sarasota philanthropists came to the rescue and built the current headquarters, which include medical, dental, counseling, psychiatric, prevention and education services. It’s the gold standard for AIDS clinics.”

“Those early donors, who saw the plague and lost loved ones, often made major gifts. But now they’re passing away. And younger people think the AIDS crisis is over. It’s become very difficult to raise funds—even from the gay community, which accounts for only 2 percent of our donors. Fortunately, three years ago, our then-president Michael Cuffage learned about a government program that allows clinics to purchase and provide drugs at a discount. The funds we realize from that have enabled us to grow tremendously.”

“The growth curve has been crazy and we’ve struggled at times to handle it, but we’re in good shape now. Under the direction of our current president, Richard Carlisle, our operating budget has gone from $3 million to $49 million; we’ve expanded from 23 local employees to 100 and have acquired 25 clinics around the state. We’re expanding their staffs and services and bringing improved care to patients all over Florida.”

“But we’re still not winning the battle. There is no vaccine or cure for AIDS; drugs enable patients to lead longer, healthier lives but they take a toll on the body. Studies say that HIV shortens the lifespan of a patient up to 15 years. And Florida is No. 1 in the country for new AIDS infections. Ignorance, fear and stigma fuel that growth. We can’t even put AIDS on our sign or building—many patients wouldn’t walk in for treatment. Some patients park blocks away to avoid having their cars spotted here. Students don’t receive proper sex education, as we are an ‘abstinence-only’ state; and the senior population is in total denial.”

“I speak often about the Longboat Lothario, the retiree who has multiple relationships, some with women his own age, some with prostitutes. His older partners may develop HIV/AIDS, but because of their age, it may be a long time before their doctors recognize or treat it. In the past three years, the infection rate of Sarasota seniors has risen 3 percent a year—and that’s just those who are diagnosed.”

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