Life of the Party

This fund-raiser wants patrons to mask their support.

What to wear to a Halloween party? Ricci Hellman can't decide. "I'm leaning toward the Rocky Horror look," she says with a grin. "Either that or antebellum."

Hellman is executive director of Friends For Life (FFL), whose mission is to help people with HIV/AIDS live well. The event -- titled "Mystery, Murder, Mayhem . . . A Masquerade Ball," scheduled for October 21st at Central Station -- is the finale to a series of about 30 parties called "A Place at the Table," which Friends For Life supporters have been hosting in their homes since mid-July to raise money for the organization.

"Some parties might have had 200 people, others four to six," says Sandra Palazolo, director of FFL's community relations. "It may have been a birthday for a friend, who said, 'Don't give me another bottle of perfume or a candle. Make a donation to Friends For Life.'"

While the finale is now in its 10th year, the organization itself is marking its 20th anniversary. Starting in 1986 with a few thousand dollars and a part-time director, FFL now has a 37-member staff, a $3.2 million budget, most of which comes from federal and state grants, and a donated 16,000-square-foot building at 43 North Cleveland. There, some 1,600 clients receive testing, housing and food assistance, transportation to the doctor, education about their illness, and other services.

"The majority of our clients are African-Americans living below the poverty line," says Hellman, who was hired as director earlier this year. "We help them get into a healthy living environment and through our Wellness University here in the building, we teach them about cooking, cleaning, how to take their meds, why their meds are important, and how to communicate with people about their HIV status." Pharmacists from Walgreens and health department representatives come on certain days to answer medical questions.

Clients can also drop in at the Positive Living Center, a day-respite area where they watch movies, learn computer skills, play games, socialize, relax in massage chairs, or practice yoga.

Formerly deputy director of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, Hellman accepted the head job at FFL partly because of its "strong track record and its promising future." Beyond that, she wants to reach more of the 8,000 local people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Based on that figure, Memphis could receive a federal Title I designation, which means $3 million earmarked for AIDS service providers would flow to the city.

In addition to grants, FFL depends on fund-raisers, including its Masquerade Ball, to support capital improvement projects. At this year's event, Palazolo wants to "kick things up" a bit. On the agenda is music by the band Funk De Ville and a costume contest. Adding an extra macabre touch will be a coffin holding a dead-bride mannequin dressed in Palazolo's wedding gown. Laughing, she explains that it sustained water damage, but she didn't have the heart to throw it away. "We needed a wedding dress, and I think it went to a good cause." 

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