TYLER (KYTX) - Nearly 1.4 million people are living with HIV infection in this country. In East Texas, there nearly 12,000 people.
That's why community members are raising money this weekend to help support an agency that serves East Texans living with HIV and AIDS.
"It's a real struggle," says Jeanette Deas-Calhoun. She's the executive director of the East Texas CARES Resource Center at 409 South Bois D'Arc in Tyler.
She began dedicating her life to those living with HIV for a very personal reason.
"My brother is HIV positive, so I'm very much in tune to the struggles of people that are living positive - particularly in a small community like this when we have services pretty scattered," she said.
The resource center provides a food pantry, an HIV testing and education center, and most importantly, a place for guidance.
"We do case management and that is a critical piece," Deas-Calhoun said. "They need knowledgeable people who know how to navigate the system to help them with accessing services."
Deas-Calhoun gets emotional as she talks about her 271 clients.
"They experience a lot of depression, a lot of anxiety, and when they come here, they know they're going to be embraced."
That's something that they don't get from many people in their communities.
"They're stigmatized, and people think they shouldn't touch them, or welcome them into their homes."
She says many people don't understand how HIV is transmitted.
"People think if they drink behind them, eat behind them, use the restroom after them, they will become infected," she said.
That's not the case and it's a big reason why staff members at the East Texas CARES Center want to continue to educate the public.
Because of the stigma around HIV, patients and organization members say charity events like the Matisse March Madness fundraiser are extremely important. It shows that the community cares and supports them.
Board Chairman Chris Cochran said, "We recruit local artists who donate their time and artwork and we auction it at an event called Matisse March Madness
She says the event usually raises $20,000 to $23,000 dollars each year and is one of the two main fundraisers for the organization. However, she says the education community members walk away with is priceless.
"We want to spread the information to the comm about education and prevention and also testing so we can identify those people who need our services," Cochran said.
The community's financial support saves lives.
If you want to be tested for HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, or you just want some information about coping with the disease, you can go to the East Texas CARES Resource Center on Bois D'Arc in Tyler. They can test you for free.