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Crowd hob-nobs for AIDS network

Published Oct. 4, 2005

It's a long way from a front yard on Rome Avenue to the downtown Hyatt Regency. But 10 years after the Tampa AIDS Network began grass-roots fund raising with yard sales and bake sales, a gala benefit at one of Tampa's poshest hotels Saturday night attracted a black-tie crowd paying $100 a plate to raise money for the group.

Belinda Womack sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Ron Nyswaner, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the film Philadelphia, spoke to the crowd of nearly 500. While notable locals such as former Mayor Sandy Freedman, USF President Betty Castor and developer Hinks Shimberg added to the sparkle of the evening, some who had been with TAN since the beginning remembered what it was like to struggle for the barest of support.

"We worked out of the back of a station wagon, trying to raise $100 at a time for medicine," recalled Chuck Kuehn, the executive director of TAN who started on the group's board of directors nine years ago. "Sometimes I feel nostalgic for those days because I can't know every one of our 1,500 clients personally like I could have in the beginning. But now we can help so many more people. We don't have waiting lists to help people now. It wouldn't be that way if we were still having bake sales."

Kuehn said the group hoped to raise $40,000, money that wil go toward AIDS education, testing, and support for people with the disease.

With 44,237 cases reported as of Jan. 1, Florida has the third highest number of AIDS cases of any U.S. state, behind New York and California. Tampa-St. Petersburg ranks 18th among major U.S. cities in the number of AIDS cases. Heterosexual transmission of HIV is at 13 percent in Florida, twice the national average of 6 percent.

"So many people are affected by the disease now," said Pat Russell, president of TAN's board of directors. "But support for AIDS fund-raising is not mainstream yet. We are making some inroads. There are some very prominent people here tonight, and I hope they can create a ripple effect with their friends who can make a difference."

Russell, a Tampa mother of three who has been working with children infected with HIV for 10 years, said there was a time when revealing her work with AIDS could silence an entire cocktail party.

"Oh, this is fabulous. This is hob-nobbing tonight," said Mary Lubin, a marketing representative for Transitional Hospital of Tampa who attended the benefit with her husband, Dr. David Lubin. "I am thrilled to see some of the mainstream here tonight. . . . At our table we have lawyers, physicians, a computer expert _ all people who aren't necessarily associated with AIDS care. It's no longer risky to support Tampa AIDS Network."