Since 1988, December 1st has been designated as World AIDS Day. Its purpose is to raise awareness of a disease that, for many, has become manageable, but still not curable, and which continues to claim lives. World AIDS Day is also a day to remember and mourn the more than 35 million who have died from AIDS since 1981.
George Kelly, a longtime AIDS survivor, Castro resident, and volunteer at the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, is honoring some of those who were lost to the pandemic in a unique way: He and his students are participating in Inscribe, an art project for World AIDS Day.
Photo: Inscribe Facebook event page
Kelly's experience with AIDS began in 1982 when he first felt symptoms. "The test was not available until 1984," he recalls. "The doctor told me to make my peace with God and to spend time with my family."
Kelly arrived in San Francisco in 1987, and took AZT, an early and highly toxic HIV drug. "I took 1200mg a day," he said. "I didn't know if I was dying from the disease or the meds."
By the 1990s, Kelly was down to 110 pounds, walked with a cane, and needed a home health care attendant. Death seemed imminent. His family said goodbye, and a priest came to deliver last rites.
Twenty years later, Kelly is still here, and relatively healthy. "The drug cocktails started working for people in '96-'97," Kelly said. "The Center For Disease Control upgraded HIV from terminal to chronic. I thought, if I'm going to live, I better get a life!"
It was a slow recovery, Kelly says, but it was a battle he was determined to win. "In 1998 I ran the Honolulu marathon," he said proudly. "It was life-validating. I dropped to my knees crying."
Kelly now spends his life giving back to the community. Between '08-'09 he was named "Volunteer of the Year" by the San Francisco Unified School District, and was awarded the Jefferson Award for outstanding community service for his volunteer work at the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in 2010. "People who help other people are happy, healthier people," Kelly said. "When I leave the school I feel overwhelmingly filled with love."
Some of Kelly's students (Photo: Inscribe Facebook event page)
When Kelly and his students take part in Inscribe, they'll be walking along Castro Street's Rainbow Honor Walk, remembering AIDS victims along the way. "We'll be writing the names of people who died of AIDS with chalk in squares on the sidewalk," Kelly explains, citing the AIDS Memorial Quilt as his influence. AIDS Quilt founder Cleve Jones is expected to attend, as is District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener and State Senator Mark Leno. Kelly said that he expects around 80 Milk Academy students to attend.
"There will be one name per square, plus whatever people want to add," Kelly said, noting that the sidewalks will be cleaned prior to the event. "The names will be photographed and sent to the GLBT History Museum."
Supporters of Inscribe include Cliff's Variety, the Shanti Project, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Let's Kick ASS (AIDS Survivor Syndrome), Honoring Our Experience, and Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District. Cliff's is donating supplies for Inscribe while the Benefit District will see to the sidewalk cleaning.
Kelly thanks many others whose support is helping to make Inscribe happen, such as Harvey Milk Academy's new principal Ron Machado, teachers Kelly Clark and Leanne Francis, and Gregg Cassin of Honoring Our Experience. Kelly particularly wants to thank former Harvey Milk Academy principal Sandie Leigh, who Kelly says was very supportive to Kelly, the students, and the community around them.
"Inscribe is not a fundraiser," Kelly emphasizes. "It is a gift from our school and it is a great learning opportunity for our students. It is a celebration of remembrance and honor for our neighbors and community. It is an acknowledgement of the long-term survivors, that offers healing and brings attention to the struggles and challenges that we still face today."
Inscribe takes place on December 1st from 10am-noon. If you are not able to attend and would like the name of your loved one(s) added to The Rainbow Honor Walk, you can leave their name and some memories on the event's Facebook page, and they will be added to the project inscriptions on Dec. 1st.
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