Steve Rivera is the Executive Director of Project Lazarus, a New Orleans–based organization which cares for people living with HIV and AIDS that has been operating for more than three decades.
Cities across the country faced tragedy in the early days of HIV, but Project Lazarus began here, in New Orleans. Why was the city chosen?
There was a strong need here. It was founded in 1985 during the early days of the HIV epidemic, by Fathers Bob Pawell and Paul Desrosiers, who noticed many black wreaths hanging in the French Quarter. They learned there was this disease that seemed to be hitting gay individuals and got a call that someone was being released from the hospital with this highly stigmatized disease and nowhere to go, so Father Bob offered his guest room in his ministry. In 1985, Father Paul opened up a space in the convent of his Marigny church, where we are to this day.
How does one go about acquiring help from Project Lazarus? What care are residents given once they’ve entered the facility?
Residents are referred by a case manager from various agencies. We have 23 beds so we’re limited and generally remain full. But once a resident is here, the mission is to help them with skills, teach them how to manage this disease, and ultimately help them live independently. Project Lazarus used to be a place where people came to die. Now, it’s become a happy place filled with goals. Our tagline is “living in the positive.”
What are some HIV statistics that you think readers should know?
Baton Rouge ranks number one and New Orleans number four in the nation for estimated HIV cases. The most important thing is that HIV is no longer a death sentence. Ultimately, you need to be tested and get into and stay in treatment. With an undetectable viral load, there’s almost no chance of transmission. But we’re not out of the woods yet.
Could you explain the relationship between Project Lazarus and Halloween New Orleans?
In the mid-’80s, when HIV was affecting predominantly gay men, a group of friends hosted an elaborate Halloween party for the LGBT community. They decided to connect the successful party to a cause that was important to them, so they decided to begin donating to Project Lazarus.
Could you speak to the importance of Halloween New Orleans’ Benefit for Project Lazarus, and what makes attending it valuable, in terms of helping to keep the organization running?
Since the ’80s they have donated one hundred percent of proceeds for approximately 30 years. They receive no form of compensation and just really want to help this cause. They have raised over $4.5 million for Project Lazarus.
Readers interested in getting involved can visit www.projectlazarus.net