I was one of the first Americans diagnosed with HIV when it was called GRID. But my life and activism started before I was even diagnosed. It all began with an act of kindness and love to my first partner and my best friend who were two of the first Americans to die of what would end up being called HIV.
Having to watch Derek and my best friend die in quarantine just broke my heart since I was 18 at the time. I could not go into the room to give them love and comfort so I pondered what could I do to make them feel loved since even the doctors and nurses wore protective garments when they went into quarantine to treat them. So being a hairy gay man (ie. bear), I decided to give them a teddy bear with a note saying how I wish I could be in there to hold them and let them know they were loved.
A few months after they died I became ill with what I thought was a bad cold or flu. When I went to the hospital, they put my in quarantine and I was diagnosed with GRID and PCP on 2/14/82. I learned just how scary, lonely and depressing quarantine was firsthand.
So as each person was admitted into quaraninte, I continued giving teddy bears to let them know they were loved. To give them something to make it less frightening and know they were loved. Then when the red AIDS ribbon came along I started adding one to the bears when I would give them as gifts to my friends.
After being released from quarantine, I found out the local newspaper had printed a story about me having the "new disease", my pictured and my address. So being in the closet about my status was never a question... I was outed. So I decided to hit the ground running and doing what I could to help other and to get government officials on the city, state and national level to talk about what was happening.
A wonderful nurse named Vicki had given me back the bear I had given my first partner after he died even though it meant risking her job since everything was incinerated when someone died in the early 80s. So I started going to city hall, California state capital and Washington DC with the bear and advocating.
I started speaking at HIV events including conferences in 1983. The first conference was in Paris, France. The first AIDS Walk was in San Francisco. As more and more events started (walks, AIDS rides, conferences), I continued speaking more often in the public and continued my activism with ACT Up and going to Washington DC on a regular basis. As of last year, Dab the AIDS Bear and I speak at over 150 events a year in 10 countries including AIDS Walks, rides, conferences, LGBT Prides, health fairs, women's events, colleges, high school and pretty much anywhere they will put a microphone in my hand.
My life changed in 1985 when I became the care giver and "god-father" to one of the first children born with HIV. Her name was Candace and she was also born with Alcohol Fetal Syndrome so she was deformed. When I went to see this little baby girl in the hospital even the nurses were ignoring her since they thought she was going to die anyway and she had "that disease". I ended up getting custody of Candace three days later. My second partner and I took her home to give her love and a life of dignity for whatever time she had.
Candace had a deformed mouth on the right side of her face instead of in front as usual. When she tried to say the word "Dad", it came out "Dab". All our friends thought it was so special so I became "Dab" and the bear started being called Dab the AIDS Bear because she loved her bear. Unfortunately, Candace lost her battle with AIDS in 1989. As she was dying, I made her a promise that I'd make other children like her feel special and loved. Since we shopped all year for her Christmas present and since Christmas was her favorite holiday, I decided to take the gifts we had already purchased that year and buy enough teddy bears for the kids in the HIV clinic where she was treated. We had a Santa come in and read Candace's favorite Christmas story "A Night Before Christmas".... this is how our Teddy Bear Touchdowns for kids with HIV and AIDS were started. Every year, I would have people approach me about starting a Teddy Bear Touchdown for the kids with HIV in their city. Now we are in our 23rd year and do parties for kids with HIV in over 20 cities in the United States and 14 foreign countries in Candace's memory.
I worked with Senator Kennedy, Ryan White and many other activists in Washington, DC to get Ryan White funding started to help people living with HIV and AIDS. The funding was finally passed by Congress in the late 80s.
From '89 to '95, I continued speaking at more and more events around the world while continuing my activism with government officials. Dab the AIDS Bear and I also started doing events in other countries affected by HIV and AIDS.
In 1992 I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma for the first time and then full blown AIDS. Knowing I may or may not survive, I wanted to train other men and women to be activists to serve, protect and help people living with HIV and AIDS. By 1992, many of my fellow early activist friends had already lost their battle with AIDS. So I decided to start a group called Ambassadors of Hope and train other people to serve, protect and advocate for people living with HIV and AIDS.
When I first started Ambassadors of Hope, only HIV positive individuals could join the program. In the late '80s, I had individuals approaching me to become Ambassadors who were HIV negative but either worked with people with HIV, provided services for our community, knew someone who had lost their battle with AIDS or knew someone living with HIV. So we opened the program to include HIV negative supporters of the community.
Over the years, the Ambassador of Hope program has gone international. We now have 349 active Ambassadors of Hope in 15 countries around the world. They help spread Dab the AIDS Bear's 31 (and counting) message of love, hope and compassion for people living with HIV and AIDS.
So what are the responsibilities of our Ambassadors of Hope?
Our Ambassadors of Hope take pics with their Dab the AIDS Bears at AIDS Rides, Walks, Conferences, LGBT Prides, health fairs, colleges, schools, health fairs, around the city and many even on their vacations. They also share the bear's 31 year message of love, hope and compassion for people living with HIV and AIDS while helping to end stigma against those living with HIV. (You can read the bear's story at: http://dabtheaidsbearproject.com/stofdabaibe.html)
Active Ambassadors of Hope are requested to do a minimum of 2 events a year from the list above. They are also asked to when possible post their pics to Facebook and "tag" my name on the pics so I get an alert that the pics have been posted. We also ask the active Ambassadors of Hope try to take at least 100 pictures a year with their bear if possible. The Ambassadors of Hope who are not on Facebook email their pictures to me.
When they take at least 40 - 50 pictures at an event, we make a special slide show with their pics for their event which are shared on Facebook, other social medias and in blog I write for several HIV/AIDS website and publications. If less than 40 pics are submitted for an event, the pics are used in the monthly slide shows we make featuring pictures of Dab the AIDS Bear around the world.
In 1995, I helped design a HIV beanie bear with the US Postal Service to raise awareness about HIV. The bear was in distribution for two years.
In 1997, I designed another beanie teddy bear and mass produced it because of cutbacks in government funding for the Ryan White Fund. I chose a medium brown color to represent all the different races affected by the virus with an AIDS ribbon on the torso. The ear tag had my nickname DAB and my birthday, March 28th along with the name of the city I lived in while designing the bear which was Los Angeles, California.
The first massed produced Dab the AIDS Bear was wholesaled to various specialty retail stores across the country. The reason I came out with another version of my bear at that time was the Ryan White Care Act funds were being cut and alternative services such as massage, acupuncture, aromatherapy, nutrition counseling etc were canceled because of our government budget cuts. These therapies are treatments that helped people with HIV/AIDS deal with the side effects from the medications and the illness itself such as neuropathy, skin problems, rashes, lypodystrophy and depression.
Then in South Carolina in December 2003, 4 AMERICAN citizens who were on the ADAP (Aids Drug Assistance Program) waiting list DIED while WAITING TO GET ACCESS TO LIFE SAVING MEDICATIONS. One of them was a friend of mine that I had met while participating in clinical trial studies at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, MD. Due to Ryan White Care Act funding cuts, his clinical trial study had been discontinued. He was on the South Carolina ADAP waiting list and could not afford the necessary life saving medications. So groups of people approached me about using my Dab the AIDS Bear to raise funds to help pay for medications for those on the waiting lists. So we got together and started Dab the AIDS Bear Project as a non-profit all volunteer organization.
As an organization, we fall under the 501(c)3 tax deductible non-profit status of Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida, Inc. We continue to do our Teddy Bear Touchdowns for children with HIV and AIDS, advocate for people living with HIV and AIDS and also do HIV/AIDS awareness, education and prevention. Our Ambassadors of Hope also fall under Dab the AIDS Bear Project.
We will be celebrating our 10th year as an official organization in several months. In that time, we have done over 2,500 events. We now have over 800,000 pictures which have been taken with Dab the AIDS Bear around the world.
And to think all of this started with a simple act of kindness and love from one person to another. I am touched and speechless from all the love we receive from people around the world. I am honored to have had so many people share their story about living with HIV, the stories of loved ones who have died from AIDS and to be able to help those living with the virus. But the best gift I get every year is seeing the smiles and hearing the thank yous from the children at our Teddy Bear Touchdowns when they open their gifts... and knowing Candace is smiling knowing I kept my promise to her.