New Haven Dines Out, And Fights AIDS

 This Thursday, Claire’s is one of the 28 restaurants participating in the 12th annual  Dining Out For Life Connecticut , the largest annual fundraiser for  AIDS Project New Haven  (APNH).  Lucy Gellman Photos.

This Thursday, Claire’s is one of the 28 restaurants participating in the 12th annual Dining Out For Life Connecticut, the largest annual fundraiser for AIDS Project New Haven (APNH).  Lucy Gellman Photos.

Thursday morning, David Vlahov went to get an omelette at Claire’s Corner Copia—and ended up fighting HIV and AIDS over breakfast. 

Thursday, Claire’s was one of the 28 restaurants participating in the 12th annual Dining Out For Life Connecticut, the largest annual fundraiser for AIDS Project New Haven (APNH). To participate, restaurants donate 25 to 100 percent of their proceeds to the organization, which provides treatment, emotional support, and testing options to New Haven and New Haven area residents. 

Proceeds from Thursday’s event go toward APNH’s “Caring Cuisine” program, a sort of Meals-On-Wheels program for people and families directly affected by HIV. 

 Jackson, Cole and McMullen. 

Jackson, Cole and McMullen. 

“It’s great to eat a meal so you can feed other people,” said AIDS Project New Haven Director Chris Cole as he stopped into Claire’s for a cup of coffee (of the 28 options, it was the only restaurant to offer breakfast this year). Trailing him for the event, caring cuisine and events and volunteer coordinator Fran McMullen said she was excited to eat the restaurant’s famed cake for breakfast. 

Around them, Claire’s bustled with patrons there for Dining Out for Life, and those who had just stopped in for breakfast. Like Vlahov and Jim Pettinelli, there to catch up over muffins, omelettes and coffee. As APNH Ambassador Nike Jackson greeted them with literature, donation envelopes and red ribbons in line, the two said they hadn't known about the event beforehand, but were enthused to be supporting it. 

“I love Claire’s and I love APNH, so this is wonderful,” said Pettinelli, the executive director of Liberty Community Services

 Breakfast buds David Vlahov and Jim Pettinelli.

Breakfast buds David Vlahov and Jim Pettinelli.

Behind him, someone called out an order for three vegan breakfast sandwiches.   

Across from him, Vlahov said the event has unexpected resonance for him—because he’s been in HIV research “since pretty much the beginning” of the epidemic. In 1987, he launched the ALIVE Study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, tracking rates of HIV and AIDS among 3,000 intravenous drug users in the city.

The study opened his eyes to the way the virus traveled, and the communities that it affected and ravaged at the height of the epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. After 15 years, he stepped down as head of the study (which continues today), and made his way from Baltimore to New Haven, where he is the associate dean for research at the Yale School of Nursing.

As they dug into their breakfast, Jackson set up shop by the front door, greeting customers as they rolled in. An early intervention specialist with the organization, Jackson said she’d gone into HIV case management because her mom was very open about the virus with her years ago—and she now wants to do the same for those around her. 

 Owner Claire Criscuolo with diner CJ Rice, a doctoral student at Yale. 

Owner Claire Criscuolo with diner CJ Rice, a doctoral student at Yale. 

“She didn’t shelter us,” she recalled. “She knew that at some point, we were going to have sex. We had condoms in the house. We were on birth control before we were ever having sex. And we knew about sexually transmitted infections and HIV … she made it normal for us.” 

That hope to end stigma around HIV is true for Owner Claire Criscuolo too, who said she’s supported Dining Out For Life as long as the event has existed. In the 1980s, she lost a family friend to AIDS, and watched them struggle with the stigma of the disease before they died. 

“Shouldn’t you just help people who need help?” she asked aloud. “There’s something about the golden rule. There’s a reason it’s a cliche.”   

Lucy Gellman