Gala will celebrate life in fight against AIDS

Red Ribbon Foundation co-founder Florence Suerig began her efforts to fight AIDS in 1994 and longs for a day when the work will no longer be necessary. — Ken Borsuk photo

Red Ribbon Foundation co-founder Florence Suerig began her efforts to fight AIDS in 1994 and longs for a day when the work will no longer be necessary.
— Ken Borsuk photo

It looks like it’s going to be a “red ribbon” night on April 6 as one of the leading foundations fighting against the spread of AIDS and looking for a cure is holding a gala with a fun night planned to support a serious message.

The Greenwich-based Red Ribbon Foundation has the 10th biennial gala set for the historic Capital Theater in Port Chester, N.Y., which has hosted the likes of Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. And it is a very fitting venue, considering the theme of the gala is “SAFE sex, drugs & rock ’n’ roll” and has several high-profile honorees, including Gary Dell’Abate, the longtime producer of the Howard Stern Show, better known as Bababooey, and a performance from Mark McGrath, lead singer of the band Sugar Ray, along with a silent auction of wild items, like a climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, driving an Aston Martin, sailing an America’s Cup yacht, and taking flying lessons. The event was originally scheduled for last November before Superstorm Sandy forced the five-month delay.

But this is not just a night to have fun. The Red Ribbon Foundation was founded in 1994 by Greenwich couple Karl and Florence Suerig after her son died of AIDS, and in that time it has given more than $2.3 million in grants both nationally and globally to stop the spread of AIDS through education and prevention efforts while funding needed research into a cure and developing compassionate care.

“It’s frustrating that it’s been so many years since we started and there is no cure,” Ms. Suerig told the Post last weekend. “We started it with the hope we would find a cure, and now we’ve become an organization that helps people who have AIDS. That’s what we’ve come to after an amazing 20 years, but we haven’t stopped working toward getting that cure.”

Ms. Suerig said she’s surprised there hasn’t been a cure but understands the difficulty of it, noting that there is still no cure for cancer either. But what also frustrates her is what she sees as a growing apathy, particularly among young people who have grown up with AIDS as a reality and have almost become numb to the risks and its impact. And that’s something that concerns not just her but also one of the key guests at the gala.

A longtime Greenwich resident, Mr. Dell’Abate is being honored with the foundation’s Jonathan Scharer Lifetime Achievement Award. Since losing his brother to AIDS, Mr. Dell’Abate has invested years into raising awareness of the disease and recently founded Lifebeat, which has worked closely with the music industry to record public service announcements and set up booths at concert tours to educate people about the risks of unprotected sex.

“There’s no cure for HIV/AIDS, but the disease can be managed, and I think a lot of young people think, ‘Oh, no one’s dying from that anymore,’” Mr. Dell’Abate told the Post in September. “So they might not educate themselves about how they need to take care of themselves. There’s no magic pill you can take and everything’s going to be fine. It’s nothing you want to have to live with. People need to learn about how to avoid getting this. You have to use your brain. You have to use common sense, and sometimes the two of those will go hand in hand.”

Red Ribbon has been doing an increased youth outreach, including at Greenwich High School, but AIDS remains a difficult subject to talk about. That’s why Ms. Suerig said the foundation has embraced a positive mind-set.

“We started this to celebrate life,” Ms. Suerig said. “I think we’ve done a good job of that, because it seems every five years or so we get a new group that becomes excited about helping us, and that’s wonderful. I just hope we don’t have to do this much longer.”

That’s where events like the gala come into play. The money raised goes into the grants that are sent out worldwide to fight AIDS. It’s important to keep people from becoming complacent about AIDS, and Ms. Suerig says it can be a challenge to raise funds with so many worthy causes competing for dollars in Greenwich. That’s why a gala like this is expected to provide a big boost.

“I’m excited about this,” Ms. Suerig said. “It feels good to be doing something for my son. I feel that he exists in perpetuity because of this organization, and that’s a nice feeling.”

Greenwich’s Jeffrey Laurence will also be honored as he receives the Visionary Award for what the foundation calls his “pioneering work on a cure.” Dr. Laurence, who works for New York Presbyterian Hospital, for Weill Cornell Medical College, and as senior scientific consultant for amfAR, has been working for years on developing a cure for AIDS. He told the Post in an interview this week that he was “elated,” not just because of the award from the foundation but because of recent breakthroughs.

“This couldn’t come at a better time,” Dr. Laurence said. “We are at a point in time where we can talk about a cure and not have it be a four-letter word anymore. Before, it used to be dangerous to talk about a cure, because you don’t want to give people false hope, but there is real progress being made, and what we need to do now is take it further.”

Dr. Laurence points to several recent developments, including adults who had received immediate treatment and now, after five to seven years, have shown signs of being able to control the virus without further treatment. Then there is the much-heralded case of a baby who was born with HIV and after treatment now has no sign of it. And when you add to that a 2008 case of a person who received a bone marrow transplant and now doesn’t show signs of the virus either, you have a pathway to fresh hope.

“It’s a very exciting time to be a part of this,” Dr. Laurence said. “I’m thrilled to be a part of this with Red Ribbon.”

Just because there have been breakthroughs as well as promising advances in gene therapy, it doesn’t mean an end is in sight toward curing AIDS. In fact, Dr. Laurence said, this is the time to work harder because these three specific cases offer hope, but this is still a global crisis.

“This is what we’ve been striving for,” Dr. Laurence said. “It’s out there now in three circumstances, and now we have to work to make it applicable to the world. We need a cure, and now we can see what one might look like.”

Dr. Laurence said he will now be “very disappointed” if there is not significant advancement in treatment toward a cure in his lifetime, something he once considered impossible. And because of this, he said the work of foundations like Red Ribbon is more important than ever, because their funding work shows the government that it’s time to get on board.

“Foundations like this are incredibly important,” Dr. Laurence said. “The government likes and needs to find things that are proven safe and effective, and used to put no money in cure research. Now, thanks to the work of these foundations and the research they’re funding, the government can see some light at the end of the tunnel.”

And that’s a light that Ms. Suerig is happy to see as well.

“I’d love to close the door on this,” Ms. Suerig said. “My goal is to stay alive long enough to really see them say, ‘This is our last event and we don’t have to raise any money because AIDS is gone.’”

For more information about the gala and the foundation, visit Redribbonfoundation.org online.

 

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