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Float Honors AIDS Pioneer

By Edwin Folven, 12/29/2011

First AHF Rose Parade Entry Marks 30th Anniversary of Disease

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One of actress Elizabeth Taylor’s most enduring legacies was her work in support of people with HIV and AIDS, and that legacy will be honored on Jan. 2 through the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s (AHF) first float in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

Jim Blythe, of Fiesta Floats, decorated one of the portraits of Elizabeth Taylor that will be featured on the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s rose Parade Float. (photo by Edwin Folven)

Crews are hard at work decorating the float, which will feature a large red ribbon and a globe symbolizing worldwide support for people with HIV and AIDS, and three portraits of Taylor from different periods in her career. The float also marks the 30th anniversary of the discovery of the first cases of HIV, and is designed to remind people that the fight against the disease is not over.

“There is still a great deal of ignorance out there, but at the same time, a majority of the American public are supportive of getting control of the epidemic. We felt this float is particularly timely and important in promoting the work of Elizabeth Taylor,” AHF president and CEO Michael Weinstein said. “She played a pivotal role in the world, and America, understanding the disease. She defended people with HIV and AIDS from ridicule and scorn, and also participated in quiet philanthropy.”

Taylor is credited with being the first celebrity to stand up for people with AIDS, which carried a stigma in the 1980s when it was first identified because it primarily affected members of the gay community. Taylor first joined with AIDS Project Los Angeles to promote the organization’s fundraising efforts, but later teamed with AHF and many other organizations. Weinstein said Taylor worked with every AIDS support organization in Los Angeles over the years, and was responsible for helping the public understand that the disease can affect anyone. Taylor went on to testify before Congress about the epidemic, and was instrumental in promoting educational programs that helped prevent the disease from spreading. She also founded the American Foundation for AIDS in 1985, and in 1993 established the Elizabeth Taylor HIV/AIDS Foundation, which has raised more than $270 million. In 2006, she donated $500,000 for a mobile HIV services clinic for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and continued to be a tireless advocate for support up until her death last March at age 79.

“When you’ve got someone like Elizabeth Taylor being a champion, it gives heart, it gives comfort, and it encourages other people to come forward,” Weinstein said. “She encouraged people to speak openly, and that is how we will get a handle on AIDS in this country.”

The float is AHF’s first entry into the Rose Parade, which will be held on Jan. 2 this year instead of New Year’s Day, continuing a long-standing tradition of never holding the event on a Sunday. The 123rd annual parade begins at 8 a.m. near the corner of Colorado and Orange Grove Boulevards, and runs along a 5.5-mile route that ends near Pasadena High School, where a float viewing area will be held. Warren Fujimora, a patient with AIDS who receives care from AHF, will be a member of the Tournament of Roses crew — serving as an “official white suiter” at the float staging area — and said his first time being a part of the event is especially poignant because of AHF’s first entry in the parade.

“When I first saw the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s float, I said, ‘this is where I belong’,” said Fujimori, 57, a resident of Tujunga. “I call it ‘my float’, because I wouldn’t be alive today without AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the help they have provided.  It is all about awareness, and we are not done. People are still dying, and the message still needs to get out.”

Fujimori added that he is especially excited about Taylor being honored, and said he greatly admires her support for people living with HIV and AIDS. Fujimori said he briefly saw Taylor once when he worked at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center as a technician and the actress was undergoing surgery. He said Taylor acknowledged him, and it left an impression he will never forget.

“We were in an elevator and I realized who she was, and I told her I just wanted to thank her for all the work she had done for all of my friends,” Fujimori said. “She looked at me and smiled and winked.”

Fujimori added that he is no longer employed at the hospital, and has found a new lease on life through AHF and Pasadena City College, where he is currently studying in hopes of entering nursing school. He credited his experience at the college for getting him involved in the Tournament of Roses, and said his participation as a “white suiter” will be among the greatest achievements of his life.

“When I turned to AHF, my emotional state and physical state were not great. My immune system was so damaged, and I didn’t have a lot of hope,” Fujimori said. “I am actually doing a lot better now. They helped me get my medications, and helped me turn my life around.”

Dana Miller, executive producer of events for AHF, said the Rose Parade provides a perfect venue to publicize the need for more support for HIV and AIDS programs, and to honor Taylor’s legacy.

“It is the 30th anniversary of HIV, and I think with the passing of Elizabeth Taylor, it was a perfect time to let people know that the HIV is still around, and it is not over,” Miller said. “We wanted to pay tribute to Elizabeth Taylor, not as a movie star but as an activist, because she really brought the world to the cause. It’s a chance to get the message out worldwide.”

Weinstein added that Taylor’s contributions have enabled the organization to help people like Fujimori, and added that the actress was involved in much broader ways. She helped fund AHF’s international efforts, including the medical clinic in Durban, South Africa for people with AIDS who have nowhere else to turn.

“AHF’s ‘Our Champion’ float also serves as a reminded that, though Ms. Taylor bravely stood up for people living with HIV and AIDS at an important moment in history, the AIDS epidemic is still not over and there remains much work to be done,” Weinstein added. “This year the theme of the Tournament of Roses Parade is ‘Just Imagine’. Lets imagine and work toward a world without AIDS.”

For information on the parade, visit www.tournmentofRoses.com, or for information on AHF, visit www.aidshealth.org.

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