Posted at: 09/09/2013 12:53 AM
Updated at: 09/09/2013 1:33 AM
By: Steve Flamisch
ALBANY -- A not-for-profit community center that helps people living with HIV and AIDS received more than $5,000 in donations Sunday to help rebuild or replace its fire-damaged facility.
More than 200 people packed the bar and club at ROCKS, 77 Central Ave., for a night of dance performances benefiting the Albany Damien Center, whose house at 12 South Lake Ave. was gutted by a fast-moving fire on August 29.
"We certainly need the assistance in rebuilding," the Center's executive director, Perry Junjulas, told NewsChannel 13. "The insurance is not going to cover -- the more and more I'm seeing -- everything that we need to rebuild and replace all of the contents."
The cause of the fire remained under investigation, Junjulas said. It is not believed to be suspicious.
The Center provides counseling, meals, nutritional advice, pet care, workforce training, and other services to individuals and families affected by HIV and AIDS. It is continuing to provide full services at the First Lutheran Church, 181 Western Ave., but that location is temporary.
Drag performers Penny Larceny and Duchess Ivana Prividera organized Sunday's benefit to help the Center rebuild or relocate to a new location.
"The Damien Center and Perry do so much for so many people in the community, not just for the people with HIV and AIDS," Prividera said. "They're always here to support us for whatever we do, so it's our turn as a community to come together and support them in their time of need."
Terri Gonhue attended the fundraiser to support the Center and the man, Junjulus, she credits for saving her life.
After years of drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness, and trouble with the law -- she was arrested 36 times -- Gonhue was diagnosed in 2003 with HIV. Isolated and terrified, she turned to the Albany Damien Center for help.
"I thought I was all alone but I learned when I went to the Center with... my little infant daughter in my arms that I was not alone," Gonhue said. "There were people just like me. I got all the support and the help that I needed."
Gonhue said she gave up the drugs and entered a long-term rehabilitation program. She was still recovering when Junjulas gave her a job.
With his encouragement, Gonhue later studied to become a nutritionist specializing in HIV. She eventually took over the unaffiliated Troy Damien Center, until her health took a turn for the worse two years ago. She is currently unemployed.
"I went from being a provider to being someone who needs help," she said, choking back tears. "I need Perry again."
Gonhue and her daughter, who is now 9 years old and does not have HIV, rely on the Center for meals, pet care, and other services. Most of all, she said, it’s their sanctuary.
"It's a life-saver," Gonhue said, noting that she's met her closest friends there. "It saved my life."
Boosted by a December fundraiser, the Center had recently paid off its 15-year mortgage only to see the house go up in flames.
The term of the mortage was intentionally short, Junjulas explained, because he had hoped there would be a cure for HIV by now, and therefore no need for the Center or its services. To the contrary, the need is greater.
"I have more people living with the disease now than ever before," Junjulas said, noting advances in medical treatment. "But not everyone is living well, and it's very hard to take the medications, and there's still alot of stigma and discrimination."
As evidence of discrimination, Junjulas said he has received hate mail from some people who were happy about the fire.
"People (said) they were glad the house burned down because people living with AIDS deserve it," he said. "I just couldn't believe that."
For Junjulas, who is living with AIDS himself, the fire is a setback but perhaps also a turning point that will generate more awareness about the plight of the people he serves. Additional fundraisers are planned in the coming weeks, and donations are being accepted at www.albanydamiencenter.org.
If you or someone you know requires the services of the Albany Damien Center, call (518) 449-7119.