Charity Gala Raises HIV Awareness

Charity Gala Raises HIV Awareness

By Jimmy Theo


 MILWAUKEE – Gary Fitzgerald knows the impact of HIV/AIDS more than just about anyone.  Fitzgerald and three of his brothers have been HIV positive for over a decade. One of them lost the battle last November.

Yet Fitzgerald defies the negativity every year at the Make a Promise Gala, put on by the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin.  This year marked the ARCW’s 25th anniversary of HIV treatment in the state. Hundreds of philanthropists, politicians, and patients enjoyed the event at the Midwest Airlines Center.

The event is one of the organizations largest fundraisers, raising thousands of dollars each year to help Wisconsin residents like Fitzgerald who suffer from HIV.

Though the epidemic has been downplayed over the last decade, hundreds are killed or infected every year in the state.  According to AIDS research organization Avert, there are over 2,600 cases in the city of Milwaukee alone.

The ARCW is one of the largest organizations combating AIDS in the country.  According to their website the agency provides service to over 3,000 Wisconsin residents.  This includes comprehensive health care to nearly 1,500 HIV patients, nearly a third of which don’t have health insurance.  (

Their annual Make a Promise Gala brings together business leaders, activists, and lawmakers, including Mayor Tom Barrett.  It includes a night of cocktails, auctions, dancing, and awards.  Every year the event is responsible for raising thousands of dollars that directly benefit those affected by the disease.

Dave Berger chatted up the black tie crowd dressed in a kilt and badger pelt.  The former State Senator has been attending the event since its inception over 24 years ago.  According to Berger, the Gala continues to grow in both attendance and influence.

When asked why people show so much support for the Gala, Berger replied, “(It’s) A true local charity, and we really know where the money goes.”

Hundreds of items were up for auction including tandem bikes, spa packages, and artwork that ranged from simple landscapes to risqué nude portraits.  The ballroom was packed with things people could bid on as well as 4 open bars.  Dinner and an awards ceremony followed.

According to public relations representative Bill Keeton, nearly every cent earned goes directly back into the treatment and prevention programs ARCW provides.  These include medication, housing, needle exchange, and condom distribution.

Keeton says that not only is the medication and treatment being provided getting better every year, but the ARCW is looking to broaden the scope of its services.  According to Keeton, mental health has long been overlooked as a factor in the AIDS epidemic.  Keeton says according to new studies mental health is, “something that has been identified as a real need for HIV patients across the state.”

Many people believe that despite the success of the Gala, the AIDS epidemic has been downplayed recently with negative effects.  Fitzgerald knows first hand that medication has made the disease more livable.  HIV positive since 1996, he has had good health and good luck.  However, Fitzgerald emphasizes that by no means has it disappeared.  

Galas like this have become increasingly important, as state and federal funding to AIDS organizations has decreased.  The ARCW and others have been relying more and more on the generosity of people and businesses. 

According to Fitzgerald, “When the people think the disease is getting better, the people stop giving, that’s when you have a problem.”

Fitzgerald said more important than the treatment is prevention.  “A lot of people don’t come into treatment until late; they are diagnosed late in the disease.”

By increasing their focus on prevention, the ARCW hopes to catch people with the illness before they have the chance to infect others.  Programs such as needle exchange help to ensure that those that are infected keep the risk of infecting others to a minimum.

According to Keeton, nearly 1,000 people were expected to attend.  With donations, the auctions, and the entertainment, hundreds of thousands of dollars could be raised to help fund these programs. 

The night concluded with a live auction and an awards ceremony honoring those who have helped to make a difference in the HIV community.  Among them were Joseph Pabst, who receive philanthropist of the year, and Mayor Tom Barrett for his leadership is combating the disease in Milwaukee.

The Make a Promise Gala 2010 emphasized that though progress has been made, there is still a long way to go in the battle against HIV/AIDS.  Keeton expects the event to keep growing and raising money each year.  He says it will continue, “until a cure is found.”




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