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Arts and Entertainment

Breaking Silence

Steven Kaufman AIDS Outreach Project celebrates 15 years of prevention advocacy

By Laura Laing | Posted 5/16/2007

The Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C.

performs at the Steven Kaufman AIDS Outreach Project 15th Anniversary Celebration

May 20 at Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall at 4 p.m.

Buddy and Linda Kaufman's living room in their Pikesville home is like a modern art museum. Unusual and intriguing pieces hang from walls and are carefully displayed on shelves. An enormous, intricately designed set of chairs sits like adjoining spiral staircases on one corner of the rug.

In contrast to the carefully arranged art is a large side table covered with framed family photos. Linda brings two over to the dining table and pushes aside a delicate blown-glass box to make room. "This one was taken when Steven was young and healthy," she says pointing to a photo of her son, a handsome young man, dressed in shorts and sporting a halo of black curly hair. The other photo was taken years later. "You can see that he'd lost a lot of weight by then," she says. His hair is trimmed short, and a mustache makes him look more distinguished.

Steven Kaufman was diagnosed with HIV in 1984. He died of AIDS in 1990 when he was just 32. "He loved people, was gregarious, outgoing," Buddy says. "Everybody liked Steven." A horticulturist, Steven loved being outdoors with his hands in the dirt. "But eventually [AIDS] gets you down. It's devastating. But he always kept a brave face."

Buddy could be talking about any one of the thousands of men who died of AIDS in the early '90s. It's what happened after his death that makes Steven's story different.

"We decided to make something positive out of something negative," Buddy says. So the Kaufmans established the Steven Kaufman AIDS Outreach Fund through the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. At first, the fund developed a support group for people living with HIV/AIDS and their families. About 10 to 15 people showed up to regularly scheduled meetings. "Every week? Every two weeks?" Buddy says. "I don't remember." They helped one another live through grief and pain.

Eventually the organization morphed into the Steven Kaufman AIDS Outreach Project (SKAOP), and its facilitators and speakers go out to schools, community organizations, and even women's groups to talk about HIV/AIDS prevention. It is run through Jewish Family Services and celebrates its 15th anniversary this weekend. The Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C., helps mark the anniversary, with a preview of a commissioned song cycle called "This House Shall Stand: Songs of My Family." The group formally premieres the work at the Kennedy Center in June.

A song cycle about the importance of family couldn't be more appropriate. Linda and Buddy, along with Steven's sister, Amy, have nurtured SKAOP through the years, reaching as many as 5,200 students last year alone.

"This House Shall Stand," written by composer Robert Seeley and lyricist Robert Espindola, showcases 13 different types of families, says Gay Men's Chorus artistic director Jeff Buhrman. "Many of us in the gay community don't have biological families," he says. "We have families of choice." And just like the Kaufmans, these families of choice suffered. AIDS ravaged the 29-year-old chorus in the 1980s and '90s. "We were losing members on a daily, weekly basis," Buhrman says

Buddy and Linda Kaufman are devoted to spreading good, honest information about HIV/AIDS prevention. "Fifteen years ago, there were a lot of things you couldn't talk about," Linda remembers. "AIDS was like a bad word those days," Buddy adds.

AIDS remains a difficult topic to discuss, especially with kids. Amid the fragile glass of their art collection, these two parents are tough and clear in their mission. They don't want other families to go through the grief they shared after Steven died. "We realized there was no point in holding back," Buddy says.

Two weeks ago, students at Catonsville Middle School got the message loud and clear. "Three. Two. One. Stop," health teacher Denise Zacharski requests. Her voice carries over the din of 200 eighth graders crammed into the school's cafetorium. The noise quiets down to a low murmur.

"Remember I told you that we'd be hearing about HIV/AIDS?" she asks the kids. "Well, today's the day. You will need a pencil and piece of paper." The kids groan a bit while searching for something to write with. A couple of long-haired boys punch each other in the stomach. These adolescents are restless?happy not to be sitting in class but wishing they were hanging out just talking.

But things in the cafetorium get serious quick. Within 20 minutes Robin Sweeney, assistant coordinator for the Steven Kaufman AIDS Outreach Program, has said words like "semen," "breast milk," and "vaginal secretions." At first the kids giggle. Soon they're using the words themselves, answering questions about how HIV is transmitted.

"True or false? Drinking can lead to behaviors that can spread HIV," Sweeney shouts across the room. "Yes," a young girl responds. "Like if you're drunk, you could have unprotected sex."

This presentation is the meat and bones of the Steven Kaufman AIDS Outreach Project. While other AIDS organizations in the city and surrounding counties focus on taking care of those living with HIV and AIDS, SKAOP is propelled by its mission to prevent the disease through outreach efforts. Trained facilitators and speakers offer presentations to any group?regardless of age, race, or gender.

"It's women who are getting divorced and dating and are going to get AIDS if they're not careful," Linda Kaufman notes. But on this day, the focus is on the kids.

"Anybody can get it," Sweeney tells the students. "It's a choice?it's a matter of your behaviors." The kids are listening, but reluctantly. Then Greg Satorie strolls to the front of the room and announces that he's been living with HIV for 26 years, and you can hear a pin drop.

Satorie is candid with the students. Dressed in a bright red T-shirt and faded jeans, he tells them that he had lots of sex when he was in college. He contracted HIV during one of his first encounters. "But I didn't know," he says. "Six years later, that person came to me, found me, and told me to get tested."

The kids are into it now. Young girls rest their chins on their hands. The punked-out boys have swiveled around in their seats to get a better look at Satorie. Not even the smell of freshly deep-fried french fries is distracting.

"When I got that news, I was afraid," Satorie explains. "I was ashamed. I was angry. I was part of the problem. I may have given the disease to someone else because I was carrying that deadly virus and didn't know it."

Over the next 30 minutes, Satorie pummels the kids with statistics and figures. Nine thousand people die of AIDS every single day. That's one person every 10 seconds. His medications cost $3,000 each month. One in five new cases of HIV are already resistant to treatment. One in 100,000 people is a victim of terrorism, but one in 200 is infected with HIV.

"You have to decide that you're not going to let that happen to you," he tells the kids. "That you're not going to be part of the problem."

Kevin is up next. He's a towering man with broad shoulders and a shaved head. "I've been living with HIV for 22 years," he says. "But I've had AIDS for 12 years." Kevin (who keeps his last name private in order to protect the nephew he's raising) found out when he tried to donate blood. He brings his "$100,000 bag" with him to presentations. Inside is a supply of experimental medications that he's taking because he has become resistant to the cocktail and other treatments.

When one student asks him if he still has sex, he says yes but only with precautions. He says it's hard to date, because he has to tell women that he's HIV+. "HIV has not stopped my professional life or my personal life," he says. But it sure has changed it forever.

"The one thing about this disease, I'll tell you, it's 100 percent preventable," he says. Kevin and Satorie are coaxed to sing "I Believe I Can Fly" in two-part harmony before closing. As members of Positive Voices, an a cappella trio, they will perform at the 15th-anniversary celebration this weekend as well.

The kids file out of the room and back to class, and young girls and a few boys come up to Kevin and Satorie. The girls are crying and want hugs. The boys shake hands; one asks for an autograph. Kevin and Satorie are paid a small fee for their time, but the real reward is the hope that they're making a difference.

"That's all the speakers care about," Linda Kaufman says. "That they've reached one person."

Satorie, Kevin, and the other speakers are well aware that the dialogue has changed since the disease was first discovered. When Steven Kaufman was alive, AIDS was a death sentence. Today, advances in treatment have changed the impact of the diagnosis, but that change comes with additional challenges.

"The kids think, 'I'll just get a pill for it, if I get it,'" Linda says. "Having treatment is fabulous, but they have to know that they can die." People with AIDS live longer and have a more fulfilling life, but as Satorie and Kevin demonstrate, AIDS is still a devastating disease. In some ways, the Kaufmans' mission is more important than ever.

Not a day passes that Linda and Buddy don't think about their son. It is hard for them to imagine that more than 15 years have passed since he died. "I often think, 'I wish I knew the name of that tree,'" says Linda, pointing to the window looking out into their meticulously groomed backyard. "Steven would."

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