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San Diego honors AIDS community with annual Tree of Life ceremony

SAN DIEGO – Several hundred people gathered Saturday night as Mama’s Kitchen hosted the 21st anniversary of the Tree of Life ceremony on World AIDS Day at the Village Hillcrest shopping center.

The Tree of Life ceremony is a somber moment as San Diegans light candles and pause to recognize and remember those who have been affected by the AIDS epidemic since the early 1980s. Ornaments were available for purchase to honor loved ones and friends, and placed on a large tree in the plaza at the shopping center. The proceeds benefit Mama’s Kitchen, which serves meals to go for thousands of area residents living with HIV, AIDS or cancer.

Panels from the historic AIDS quilt were also on display.

County Supervisor Ron Roberts acknowledged the progress that has been made over the past three decades in the fight for a cure, which so far has eluded scientists and doctors.

“We’re here to celebrate the fact that we are making progress, although there’s a lot more to do. This year Mama’s Kitchen had a great year, including a new facility and its 6 millionth meal.”

Nathan Fletcher, who is returning to civilian life after serving in the California Assembly and making an unsuccessful run for San Diego mayor, also spoke to the crowd. He remarked on the changes that have occurred over the past 30 years and marveled how today the President hangs a gigantic red ribbon over the front porch of the White House.

State Sen. Christine Kehoe, who is termed out of office, offered important advice to the community.

“Practice safe sex all the time,” she said. “That used to be a message that we heard repeatedly from all gay organizations, and we need to keep that message strong.”

Alberto Cortés, executive director of Mama’s Kitchen, thanked Kehoe for her longtime commitment to fighting AIDS.

“It’s important to acknowledge Senator Kehoe as she steps down from the Senate, for her involvement since the beginning,” he said, who then awarded her a plaque of appreciation.

Bonnie Dumanis, San Diego County District Attorney who also unsuccessfully ran for mayor, reflected on the people and faces we’ve lost over the past 30 years.

“In the early days when our brothers were getting sick, women stepped up. … Let’s re-permit ourselves to get involved,” she said.

Terry Cunningham , chief of the County of San Diego HIV, STD and Hepatitis Branch of Public Health Services, led the candlelight vigil and urged community members and activists to talk to their Congress members and tell them to reauthorize the Ryan White Care Act. “We are getting there, but are still far from zero,” Cunningham said.

Perette Godwin of Fox 5 hosted the ceremony.

The San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus then serenaded the crowd with holiday music. Snooze - an A.M. Eatery - provided food and refreshment for guests.

Photo captions

Top left: The San Diego Gay Men's Chorus sings. Photo by Ben Cartwright.

Middle left: The tree is lit. Photo by Ben M. Gómez via Facebook.

Lower left: The men's chorus sings. Photo by Ben M. Gómez via Facebook.