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Celebrating for a Cause: Ryan Burris holds a fifth annual holiday toy drive for children suffering from or effected by AIDS

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‘Tis the season to give back. Wilmington is a community never short on charitable persons who seek to ameliorate the lives of many. Since the early ‘80s, the HIV/AIDS crisis has been a hot-button issue, and this week two local human rights activists will hold an event to ensure children suffering from or effected by the virus will have a Christmas to remember.


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Hot on the trails of World AIDS Day (December 1), Ryan Lee Burris, chair of Cape Fear Equality (a local incarnation of Equality NC), and his fiance, Wes Taylor (Burris recently proposed at a Cape Fear Equality event that celebrated the legalization of gay marriage in North Carolina), will hold their fifth annual holiday toy drive on Sunday, December 14. The event seeks toys and gifts for people aged from infancy to 18 years old. Last year over 300 people turned out; around 1,400 toys were collected for Duke’s Partner’s in Caring, a group that educates on HIV/AIDS and supports persons effected by the virus.

“We’re thinking 400 people this year, and 2,000 toys!” Burris declares.

When Burris first began the event, they collected toys for ACES, Inc. (AIDS Care & Educational Services). The organization became defunct after the holiday toy drive’s second year, so they subsequently paired up with Duke Medical Center’s Partners in Caring.

“We realized [five years ago] that there were several toy drives annually,” Burris tells, “but none that focused specifically on children that are HIV positive or effected by HIV/AIDS (and we do hold on to a few toys, for folks in our local community that may need a little extra help)!”

The holiday toy drive brings a sense of humanity that reminds people of others who may be suffering—real people, not just a statistic. “One of the biggest issues surrounding HIV/AIDS, is the stigma that surrounds it,” Burris states.

Since HIV/AIDS was discovered, controversy has followed its coverage. In the past, it’s been classified as “a gay person’s disease” and has been associated with promiscuity and drug use. Fire-and-brimstone religious extremists have promoted a belief that it is somehow a punishment for people who they feel don’t live in accordance with a certain religion.

Throughout the ‘80s, perfectly healthy homosexual men even were barred from donating blood because of the prejudices associated with gay men and HIV/AIDS. Burris and Cape Fear Equality work all year long to put a face on the virus. They’ve held an AIDS walk that occurred last June and have partnered with the New Hanover County Health Department and St. Jude Metropolitan Community Church to ensure people are getting tested (so many people who have HIV/AIDS have no idea). Though nothing is set in stone yet, Burris promises Cape Fear Equality will hold a host of events throughout 2015 to address HIV/AIDS.

“Cape Fear Equality diligently advocates for risk reduction, prevention, counseling, treatment, and testing,” Burris informs. “We work with partners in the state to improve the lives of people living with HIV and affected communities through outreach and public education, policy advocacy, and community-building, to increase visibility and mutual support of people living with HIV throughout our state.”

Since the annual toy drive has begun, support has poured in from across the community. Chipotle, Flying PI, Plaza Mariachi, Pine Valley Market, Nikki’s, Front Street Brewery, Elijah’s, Pilot House, and Reel Café all will be providing food items for the event. Charles Hudson donated his sound equipment for live music.

Cape Fear Equality board member John Bonomo has played an instrumental role in seeing the event to fruition this year. ETC Party Rentals will be providing tables and chairs, and St. Jude Metropolitan Community Church, Plaza Mariachi, and Dallas and Stephen Vetter have begun collecting toys. Once the toys are amassed, Burris and Taylor will take them to Partners in Caring where they are sorted and put into bags for families. Attendees of the party also can bring gift bags. Partners in Caring has a list families in need that gives a description of the children within the family. Toys are allocated based on age.

While Burris does not hand-deliver the gifts to children, he has had some contact with the people benefitting from the toy drive. “Three years ago, WECT ran a story on our event, and a viewer called in, asking for help,” Burris details. “The person was someone with HIV (a grandmother, who was trying to provide presents for her three grandchildren). We were able to help her out with toys and provide her with food to cook a Christmas dinner! She was so happy. I spent a couple of hours with her, learning about her and her family. She was so appreciative. [She] cried, and it made me cry.”

Burris encourages attendees to bring canned goods and toiletries for St. Jude Metropolitan Community Church’s food pantry. The party will be held at Burris and Taylor’s home. Free parking will be available along 5th and Castle streets. Folks can expect a night of food, friends and entertainment, all while supporting a great cause.


Fifth Annual Holiday Toy Drive

Sunday, December 14, 6:30 p.m.
Admission: Unwrapped toys; nonperishable food donations welcome
For address:

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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