The sun was setting beyond the fields and the lake into the Everglades as the sparse gathering came together at the community college cultural center last week.
In all about two dozen people came to commemorate the 27 years of loss, misery and hard work the AIDS epidemic brought to the far western edges of Palm Beach County.
The turnout wasn’t big enough to dot more than three rows of seats, but it wasn’t small enough to dampen the ceremony that organizers have built into their tradition over the last two decades.
Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson with the help of the luminous “Little Miss Destiny Stewart,” daughter of longtime organizer Sandra Daniels Stewart led the pledge, and speakers delivered welcomes in English, Spanish and Haitian Kreyol.
The elder Stewart has been with ACOTGI – the AIDS Coalition Of The Glades, Inc., since the start, when nurses, church members, and others in the mid ‘80s started joining forces against the epidemic that was sweeping the nation, and yet somehow said to be singling out their town for shame and loss.
Together, they have always come through when money was needed to help a local patient make rent, or food to take with medicine.
“Our theme this year is your life is worth saving, and it truly is,” Sandra Chamblee, longtime Glades resident, grandmother, hospital board member, volunteer, and since 1998, when she took her first paying work, director of the Glades Heallth Initiative, said in the English verson.
This is a close knit town, and when at the end, Stewart named some of the members of their little army that were gone, only the children didn’t remember the famous Dr. Deanna James, who worked at the Health Department clinic, and who told a congressional committee that if things didn’t change, black people would soon become extinct in the Glades.
“She passed away just before you were born,” a woman told her daughter. “Your father went to her service.”
A medical technician, she had worked with Dr. James six months before the doctor transferred to West Palm. “You know how some doctors clock in and clock out, and go back to where they came from and forget about you? She wasn’t like that.”
Someone had donated red plastic cups with holes in the bottom to hold candles for the walk from the campus to the city’s downtown, and Stewart asked everyone to remember to give them back at the end.
The sheriff’s office was charging $250 this year for the cars and deputies to escort the walkers along the mile and a half in the dark along one of the town’s two highways, so the organizers had wheedled the money out of friends and supporters at the last minute. They said they understood the sheriff’s office was hit with hard times just like everyone else in this year that had seen the $700 billion bankers bailout.