World AIDS Day events scheduled on island

Organizer Peter Serko encourages the community to participate in a “commemoration” of World AIDS Day.

A series of events and programs sponsored by an island man whose brother died of AIDS is set to take place at the end of the month and into December, coinciding with World AIDS Day 2019.

Peter Serko released a schedule of the events, which includes a staged reading of his own play; a concert to raise funds for several regional LGBTQ causes; a gallery displaying photography from an AIDS activist; and a program for McMurray Middle School students, who will learn about the AIDS crisis in Africa.

Though the middle school program is not open to the public, the other events are. To that end, in an interview with The Beachcomber Serko encouraged the community to participate in what he calls a “commemoration” of World AIDS Day.

“Show up, come; be part,” he said. “It’s your way of becoming an activist yourself.”

Started in 1988 and occurring every Dec. 1, World AIDS Day is meant to bring attention to the millions of people who have died from it. According to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, the latest figures indicate 32 million people have passed from AIDS-related illnesses since the epidemic started; another 37.9 million were living with HIV in 2018, and 770,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses the same year.

Serko’s brother, David, died of AIDS in 1992. Prior to that, Peter had made it known in a letter to the editor of The Beachcomber in 1991 that his brother was infected. In the letter, he also said he had seen the AIDS quilt in Seattle, “a powerful and moving reminder of the tragedy and sadness of the AIDS epidemic.”

“That’s way back in 1991 and here I am in 2019, moving into 2020, and we’re still dealing with this,” Serko told The Beachcomber this week, noting the staggering statistics of HIV/AIDS. “It’s not gone. It’s still a significant risk. It could easily take off again.”

He noted the progress in combating HIV/AIDS has largely come not from government research and funds, but from activists. It’s with that mindset that Serko said he spearheads Vashon World AIDS Day.

“One person can make a difference,” Serko said. “That’s kind of how I’m approaching it. I’m doing my little part to make a difference.”

The series of events he has organized kicks off with a staged reading of Serko’s play, “OUT!” at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 29 and Saturday, Nov. 30 at the Vashon Island High School Theater. Tickets are free and can be reserved at or at the door both nights of the event.

At 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 1 at Open Space for Arts and Community, there will be a concert featuring local musicians performing the music of David Bowie. Serko said originally, the plan was to pay tribute to Elton John, who is an AIDS activist, but those plans fell through. The concert is meant for islanders to have fun and raise money for LGBTQ causes, he said.

“Last year, we donated a couple thousand dollars,” Serko said. “That’s kind of the primary goal of the event — raise awareness, but have a good time. It’s all done by island musicians.”

Vashon World AIDS Day 2019 also features two events that will be held throughout the month of December.

One is at the Vashon Island High School Library, which will feature photography from islander and AIDS activist Dana Schuerholtz.

“She was involved herself and happened to have a camera and be a talented photographer,” Serko said. “Most of these photos have rarely been seen. That’s one of the great things we’ve done; she’s finally getting her work out there.”

Serko also noted the Vashon Heritage Museum will have “pop-up photography” and an exhibit, called “IN and OUT: Being LGBT on Vashon,” at 6 p.m. on Dec. 8.

The other event Serko helped organize is a program going on at McMurray Middle School to teach students about the AIDS epidemic with an emphasis on Africa, where the disease persists.

Serko said the school’s library and social studies teachers have organized the program, featuring two island residents,

Ann von Briesen Lewis, an international development consultant, and Cate O’Kane, a former HIV/AIDS program director with the nonprofit Population Services International. Students have been asked to watch films about and do research on HIV/AIDS to prepare for a Q&A with Lewis and O’Kane.

“We want them to understand the role social and cultural factors play in the epidemic,” Serko wrote in an email. “Even though we know how to prevent and manage the disease, poverty, limited access to education and health care services, child marriage, domestic violence and stigma all play roles in continuing to fuel the epidemic. Over 1,000 girls are infected with HIV every day not because they willfully engage in risky behaviors, but because they have few other choices.”

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