Ask & Tell

BY Bob Adams

October 28 2009 11:00 PM ET

Teddy bears are iconic for longtime AIDS survivor Dab Garner. _A burly, hairy man living in Jacksonville, Fla., who self-identifies as a "bear," Garner is known for giving stuffed "AIDS bears" to ill HIVers around the globe. Today, the 47-year-old not only continues his nearly three-decades-long bear-distribution mission but also serves as founder and chief executive of his self-named organization, Dab the AIDS Bear Project, which works to safeguard the health of HIVers everywhere.

How did your tradition of giving teddy bears to people with HIV get started?
I gave the first bear in 1981 to the ex of my first boyfriend when he was dying in the hospital in San Francisco. It broke my heart that he was-like all people with AIDS were back then-quarantined, afraid, and alone. I didn't know what to do, so I just ran out and bought him a teddy bear to give him something to hold and hug. [Getting choked up] And maybe give him a glimmer of happiness and hope. That was how it got started; to date, I've given away more than 7,500 of them.

But you founded your agency, Dab the AIDS Bear Project, in 2004 not only to continue that work but also in response to a lack of affordable HIV treatments?
At the time there were several states that had started waiting lists for access to their AIDS Drug Assistance Programs, and a friend of mine actually died while on the waiting list for treatment in South Carolina. I decided I couldn't let that ever happen again, so I made advocating for the nation's ADAPs-and in general for affordable, quality health care-one of my priorities. We do a lot of speaking and advocacy work on those issues.

Another priority is helping kids affected by HIV, correct?
Yes. We hold holiday events each year through the project's Teddy Bear Touchdown program. They're a vital part of our mission.

Why are they so important to you?
In the mid '80s my partner and I were introduced to a little girl, Candace, in foster care who was born with HIV and fetal alcohol syndrome, which left her with some physical deformities. We couldn't become her foster parents, so we became sort of god_parents to her. She was the apple of my eye! But she got sick and passed away just before Christmas 1989. I had already bought gifts for her. [Starts to get choked up again] To honor her, I gave them to other kids living with HIV. I saw how those kids just had so much happiness and joy seeing that someone cared. So I've been doing it every year since. Now, with the donations we get, we're able to hold holiday parties and give gifts to hundreds of kids in 10 U.S. cities and even outside the country. I made a promise to Candace while she was losing her battle with AIDS to do everything I could for children like her. [Begins to cry] And I've done my best to live up to that promise.

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