A week from today, nearly 30 restaurants throughout Pinellas County will donate a significant portion of sales to support area residents living with HIV and AIDS.
In its 17th year, Dining Out For Life is an annual fundraiser supported by local volunteers, corporate sponsors and restaurants. According to its website, more than 50 local HIV service organizations partner with over 2,400 restaurants, 4,100 volunteers and 300,000 diners to raise $4.5 million for people living with HIV and AIDS throughout the U.S. and Canada each year. This year’s event is Wednesday, April 27, and hours vary by establishment.
All funds raised through each participating city’s Dining Out For Life event stays in that area to help local residents. In Tampa Bay, the two nonprofits responsible for setting up and organizing the event are the Suncoast Hospice Foundation and Empath Partners in Care (EPIC), a member of Empath Health. For nearly 60 years, EPIC has provided comprehensive, wrap-around services for people living with HIV throughout Tampa Bay.
Joy Winheim, executive director for EPIC, said having people in cities throughout the county thinking and talking about something creates a much-needed buzz on the topic.
“Because we all know HIV is not talked about on social media, in the news or anywhere else as much these days,” she said. “And what better way to support a good organization than going out and having a meal with your friends – which people do anyway.”
Winheim said advancements in treatments and the normalization of living with HIV/AIDS led to some unintended consequences. She explained that for the last 30 years, health officials have preached that with the proper medication and lifestyle regimens, those infected can live long, relatively normal lives.
She believes that messaging causes many people to take more risks rather than change behaviors while also decreasing the level of awareness and support for those struggling to cope with the virus.
“It’s not so scary anymore,” she said. “So, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot a little bit that way.”
Dining Out For Life hopes to increase local awareness of HIV/AIDS and support the myriad of services EPIC provides for its clients – regardless of their HIV status, gender or sexual identity. Winheim said EPIC offers unique resources not typically found in similar organizations, such as down payment and deposit assistance for housing.
Winheim added the funding is unrestricted, which allowed EPIC to recently purchase a bicycle for a client in need of transportation. She said the nonprofit could also set money aside for large projects, such as building apartments or daily commodities like groceries and toiletries.
“It (the money raised) supports supportive services that grants don’t,” she said.
There is no shortage of community needs in Pinellas County. According to AIDSVu.org, there were 4,703 residents living with HIV in 2019 and 184 new cases. That equates to 544 county residents per 100,000 people – higher than the regional average of 451 and the national average of 380 per 100,000 people. The number of new cases in Pinellas was also proportionately greater than the regional and national average.
Brooke Boccacino, director of affiliate philanthropy for the Suncoast Hospice Foundation, which raises money for EPIC through Dining Out for Life, said the event has grown over the years. While she said the pandemic hindered the fundraiser over the last couple of years, and current staff and supply chain shortages add a hurdle, she is pleased with the restaurant community’s response.
“We’re seeing them all come back again,” she said. “And I think everybody’s very excited to get out there, support EPIC and participate.”
All 27 participating eateries donate at least 10% of sales to the cause, while most offer 25%. The Frog Pond is giving away 50% of its sales at two locations – in St. Pete Beach and Redington Beach. Winheim called the support amazing and noted the “restaurants are packed” during the event. She said customers specifically search for participating restaurants and go out to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner that day.
The Dog Bar, located in St. Pete’s Grand Central District, is one of just two establishments that includes alcohol sales in donations. Winheim said the organizations advertise for the restaurants and assign volunteer ambassadors to help spread the word about those participating.
Over the last 10 years, Boccacino said, the event has raised around $425,000 for AIDS and HIV patients. Despite the ongoing pandemic, she said the Suncoast Hospice Foundation and EPIC raised about $41,000 during last year’s Dining Out for Life day.
“It’s pretty amazing,” she said.
For more information on EPIC’s services, visit the website here. For a full list of participating restaurants and event hours, visit the Dining Out for Life website here.