Largest NJ AIDS Foundation Raises Money to Provide Free Services

Erin Pedrini
Web Production Assistant

Game table at Hyacinth’s 2013 Casino Night. Photo courtesy of Lola Akinola.

The first and largest AIDS foundation in New Jersey, Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, will be holding a Casino Night March 22 in New Brunswick to raise money for the locations around New Jersey that need funding, in order to keep their services free of charge to the community and their clients.

Hyacinth reaches about 15,000 men, women and children each year in New Jersey. There are eight locations throughout the state in six metropolitan areas, including Jersey City, Newark, North Plainfield, Paterson, Trenton and the headquarters in New Brunswick.

“The mission of Hyacinth’s is to help people who live with AIDS/HIV, slow the epidemic and service the voice of the public debate surrounding AIDS in New Jersey,” said Development Associate Lola Akinola.

Hyacinth was founded in 1985, in response to the AIDS/HIV epidemic outbreak in the 1980s. Akinola said that during that time there were many people that were affected or infected by AIDS/HIV and they had nowhere to go for services, or to learn more about the disease and how to treat it. “Back then, it was a death sentence. Once you found out that you were infected, people thought that was it and that they were going to die,” said Akinola.

The foundation provides prevention services, performs community outreach to the groups that are most impacted and raises money to provide free services. The foundation also provides wellness groups, mental health services and a group that works with the incarcerated community who is affected or infected by HIV/AIDS and works with them when coming out of prison to give them the support, treatment and care that they need. Hyacinth also offers special programs such as the Living Out Loud project (LOL) in Jersey City, which Akinola said provides services to gay men of color and provides them with counseling and testing.

The foundation holds different events to raise money. In the fall, members hold an annual gala, participate in an AIDS walk in New York and hold the upcoming event, Casino Night. This is the second annual Casino Night and it will be held at the Elks Lodge in New Brunswick from 7 to 11 p.m.

“Casino Night is more of a fun community event that we do in New Brunswick because it is our headquarters. We wanted to bring our supporters out to do something that is affordable and something that they can really enjoy doing with family and friends. In Middlesex County, there are 2,000 people who are infected with HIV/AIDS and 21 percent remain undiagnosed. So part of why we want to do it right here is to show the real impact that it has on our community locally and to bring about awareness for it,” said Akinola.

Attendees participating in Hyacinth’s 2013 Casino Night. Photo courtesy of Lola Akinola.

Last year, Hyacinth raised $10,000 at Casino Night and this year, Akinola said, they hope to raise even more and make the event even bigger year after year.

Akinola said besides raising money, the events raise awareness because many people think that HIV/AIDS is no longer an issue because there are many other diseases that get publicity and receive more attention. She said that when people think of HIV/AIDS, they think that it has been around for so long, that it is not affecting many individuals today.

“People don’t hear about HIV/AIDS, not in the news, and it’s not in the forefront. People think it’s not really an issue and it is because people are still infected and so it’s really important just to bring about awareness that it is still an issue and it is still affecting our community,” said Akinola. “People are still infected every day and we just want to bring about awareness to reduce the spread of the disease and reduce stigma. People think that it is just affecting people who are gay men, but it affects people across all racial lines and economic lines. It does have more of an impact in communities of color, poor communities of color, but it is still definitely something that we should be concerned about and be talking about.”

Akinola said that the best part about working for Hyacinth is talking to the clients and people who come into the centers. “Despite all of the setbacks that they are going through with their health, they tell you that they have been blessed and they can’t complain. It makes you think. They come in smiling and happy to be here. Hyacinth’s is a family,” Akinola said.

Casino Night tickets are $50 and can be purchased online or at the door. At the event, participants can play games such as roulette and black jack and they do not have to know beforehand how to play every game because there will be instructors to teach people how to play the games. Participants can play for raffle tickets, to win prizes and it all helps raise money in the process. Event sponsors include The Bank of Princeton, The Star-Ledger, Bruce Moskovitz M.D., John Fellin, Matrix, Withum, Smith and Brown, Niedweske Barber Hager and Bryan Baugh M.D.