Santa Cruz Aids Project (SCAP) celebrated the 31st anniversary of World AIDS Day by organizing a candlelight vigil at the Pacific Cultural Center.

Alvin Rodriguez is one among the hundreds of people in Santa Cruz County who knows firsthand the pain of AIDS. Since being diagnosed as HIV positive in 1992, Rodriguez has lost a lover to the disease, developed diabetes, experienced liver problems, undergone seven heart surgeries and now has to be tested for various forms of cancers.

“There have been times when it’s been hard to deal with this illness,” Rodriguez said. “There have been times like last year when I wanted to end my life. But it didn’t work, I’m still here.”

And here he is determined to remain.

On Dec. 1, Rodriguez joined other members of the community in Santa Cruz County at the Pacific Cultural Center to attend a candlelight vigil organized by the Santa Cruz AIDS Project (SCAP) to celebrate the 31st anniversary of World AIDS Day and renew commitment to the 2011–15 theme of “Getting to Zero,” referring to the goal of eventually curing the disease out of existence.

“We won’t stop, and we can’t stop, until we eradicate HIV and AIDS from our communities and across the world,” said Patricia Castagnola, director of client services at SCAP, addressing a circle of attendees holding candles to celebrate those living with HIV/AIDS and to mourn those who were lost.

Founded in 1985, SCAP is a nonprofit organization that provides free client services to several hundred individuals living with HIV/AIDS in Santa Cruz County. This assistance spans a wide range of services, covering medical aid and financial assistance as well as providing educational materials and a food pantry. Speaking after the vigil ended, Rodriguez said this assistance has sometimes made all the difference.

“I’ve been with SCAP for 20 years. In times of need they’ve been there for me,” Rodriguez said. “They’ve helped me with rent and PG&E and everything. They’ve been there for all my struggles, they’ve been there when I need someone to talk to.”

But according to volunteer coordinator Hayley Schmidt, the ability of SCAP to help their clients has been restricted by recent reductions in state and federal grants, leading to a drastically shrunken budget.

“Around seven years back we had a 25 person staff, and now we have five,” Schmidt said. “We’ve definitely consolidated and lost a lot of funding.”

In July 2012, SCAP was folded into the Santa Cruz Community Counseling Center. Schmidt said although this move benefits SCAP, which now has access to the resources of the largest nonprofit agency in Santa Cruz, the organization still relies heavily on the assistance of volunteers, especially in terms of outreach and education on preventing the spread of serious STDs.

“Our prevention education outreach program is all interns and volunteers,” Schmidt said. “A lot of them are UCSC students.”

Even after its recent consolidation, SCAP relies heavily on financial contributions from the community to continue providing its services. One of the fundraising campaigns is BizAid for AIDS, an annual 10-day period running from Nov. 23 through Dec. 2 where businesses pledge to donate a percentage of their sales to SCAP.

BizAid was created 22 years ago by Scott Roseman, the owner and founder of New Leaf Community Markets. Although BizAid is now officially run by SCAP, Roseman helps the administrators plan how to get businesses involved with the event.

“Back when I came up with this idea, there was a tremendous need to support people affected by AIDS,” said Roseman in an email. “While we have made great progress in the treatment of AIDS, people are still in need of this type of support.”

Schmidt said private funding is especially vital to SCAP because in addition to cutbacks, Santa Cruz is already receiving significantly less money than other California cities.

“Considering Santa Cruz is a smaller town, it does get less funding because there are less people [HIV] positive here than in SF,” Schmidt said. “It’s definitely prevalent, but we only have numbers for people who have been tested. A lot of people don’t get tested, so we try to promote awareness and education about testing.”

According to a statement by Castagnola in a press release for BizAid, 424 people were living with HIV/AIDS in Santa Cruz County as recently at June 30, 2012.

Despite his hardships, Rodriguez considers himself one of the fortunate ones.

“I’m lucky that my family loves me because I have friends, a lot of friends, whose families don’t have anything to do with them,” Rodriguez said. “When you have your family supporting you, backing you up, that’s a reason to live.”