Toronto PWA Celebrates 37 Years of Advocacy, Empowerment and Resilience



In a spectacular display of gratitude and community spirit, the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation (PWA) marked its 37th anniversary with a gala event on its birthday, Saturday May 18, 2024 that brought together over 200 attendees at 163 Queen’s Street East.

Founded in 1987, PWA has been a beacon of hope for people living with HIV/AIDS, offering vital services such as practical support, counseling, therapeutic care, advocacy, community outreach among others.

The evening was filled with elegance and entertainment, featuring an indigenous ceremony, and a gourmet dinner. Highlights included heartfelt speeches from key figures in the organization.

Adam Salter, a founding member of PWA, while sharing his journey and the significant progress PWA has made since its inception said he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 but found solace and support in PWA when it began in 1987.

He described the assistance he received at PWA as a critical lifeline during a time of immense fear and uncertainty.

Reflecting on the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, Salter highlighted the isolation and stigma faced by those diagnosed. “At the time, it was a death sentence,” he recalled.

“PWA was the first organization that was actually advertising help for the gay community, which was crucial as no one wanted to talk to you, and people were dying,” he said.

Salter elaborated on the evolution of PWA, noting its growth from a grassroots group to a well-organized support system that offers a wide range of services, from medical and legal assistance to social events.

“There’s been an evolution in the type of people coming in and being a part of the community. Today, we have a lot more events and support including food, clothing, and medications,” he said.

He also shared a serendipitous personal detail that added to his deep connection with PWA: “I think it’s fantastic. When I found out that both the organization that I am a part of and my birthday are celebrated on the same day, it’s fantastic,” Salter expressed with joy.

Salter’s enduring message to those living with HIV/AIDS is one of hope and resilience. He said: “Never give up. Look for community, look for assistance from other people around you. And don’t be afraid to try; you might find that the person you fear the most to discuss your HIV status with might be your best supporter.”

Gareth Henry, the Director (Interim) of the Toronto HIV Network, who is also a member of PWA while delivering a heartfelt message of hope and solidarity to people living with HIV during his address emphasized the importance of seeking support and not fearing judgment when disclosing one’s status.

In his reflective remarks, Henry also shared insights from his journey, notably his first time at PWA from 2008 until date, describing it as an “amazing journey,” he praised the agency for its familial culture and strong support system.

“In May 2008 I came to PWA because I ran out of Anti-Retroviral (ARV) medication and I was able to get them at PWA because I was yet to be registered to access healthcare which, in those days, took a long time. PWA helped to keep me healthy. Since then, I have had a wonderful experience with the foundation. Keep loving and taking care of yourself. Immerse yourself in positive vibes and know that things will get better, things MUST get better. Above everything else, allow yourself to become a part of this wonderful community that will support you in many different ways. 

“Always remember that as a PHA, you have a right to be here. Let no one take that right away”

"PWA is a wonderful organization that supports people living with HIV," he said, highlighting how the organization's supportive environment contributed to his positive experiences there.

Also, Stephanie Gonzalez, a volunteer at PWA Foundation, while sharing her experiences and the impactful work which it does, sees her role as an opportunity to support and connect with people from various backgrounds who are facing significant challenges.

“Every day is a new challenge. Everyone has their problems, you know, and sometimes like you need to forget about it, focus or help others because whatever you are dealing with right now is nothing compared to what these people are dealing with,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzales said her work at the foundation has not only allowed her to meet new people but also to participate actively in creating a supportive community environment.

“I enjoy being here and helping a lot of members from all around the world,” she added.

The Executive Director, Suzanne Paddock, who reflected on the foundation’s journey and its impactful contributions to the community.

“Tonight isn’t just about celebrating past achievements, it’s about looking forward to the future, and thanks to your generous support, that future is brighter than ever.”

She narrated how the organization’s efforts over the past 37 years have been central to supporting individuals to live “long, healthy, happy lives full of support and community.”

Suzanne highlighted the organization’s enduring commitment to those living with HIV and the ongoing need for funding and understanding to combat stigma and discrimination.

She emphasized the importance of fighting stigma: “Absolutely, we need to fight stigma and discrimination. People should not feel guilty; people should not feel low. We should be proud of who we are. We are strong together as a community comes to PWA to get support, be a part of our community, give back. Let’s fight together. We stand together.

Addressing the financial aspects of their operations, Suzanne disclosed that PWA operates on an annual budget of just over $4 million, with a significant portion raised through community efforts. “We get around a million dollars from the government, but we raise over $3 million ourselves,” she said, underscoring the growing needs of its community members, particularly among newcomers to Canada who face challenges such as long periods in shelters and little access to housing.

Concluding her remarks, Suzanne Paddock reaffirmed the organization’s pledge to the community: We will support you in the best way we can. And we all give back to communities so that we can live long, healthy lives.”

Also, in a poignant video message PWA Board co-chair, David Morris highlighted the significant role of the PWA in supporting the community for over 37 years, providing a space of dignity and fighting against stigma. “I’m so proud to be a part of this organization and to have you as members of my community,” he stated. “Together, we work to make life a bit easier for those of us affected by HIV.”

As PWA celebrates its achievements and dreams of the future, Morris conveyed his enthusiasm about the organization’s new home and the potential to welcome more members into their support hub. “Today is a great opportunity to dream about the future,” he emphasized.

Morris also extended warm birthday wishes to the organization: “Have a wonderful birthday party. Happy birthday, PWA.”

In his remarks, the Leather and Kilted Tanzanite, Kihew Emperor, Emperor 37 Okimawiw Kevin Lionheart-Davidson of the Imperial Court of Toronto (TICOT), “Our journey began alongside PWA’s, and since the inception, we’ve stood united in our efforts to raise funds and awareness,” stated Emperor Okimawiw Kevin.

He said, “It’s critical to channel our resources into areas that are often overlooked by mainstream funding. By focusing on essentials like the Essentials Market, we ensure that our contributions make a tangible difference in people’s lived.”

His Majesty expressed deep appreciation for the progress made by PWA and other organizations dedicated to combating HIV/AIDS. “From our very beginnings to where we stand today, we’ve witnessed remarkable advancements and growing support for those impacted by this crisis,” he noted. Looking forward, Emperor Okimawiw Kevin voiced a hopeful but bittersweet wish for the future:

“Ideally, the need for PWA’s services will no longer exist as we overcome HIV/AIDS. Until that day comes, we commit to continuous support, hoping for many more years of effective service. However, our ultimate goal remains a world free of HIV/AIDS, where community support transitions to prevention and ultimate eradication.”

He also stressed the need for unity and sustained action in facing public health challenges.

Toronto PWA

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