Joining Hearts – best known for hosting gay Atlanta's biggest summer ab fest – also donates big bucks to charity. And the non-profit, staring down startling statistics about HIV in Atlanta, made sweeping changes to how it dishes out tens of thousands of dollars to HIV groups every year.

The organization – which fundraises through a series of popular parties during the year – also made another significant change. It's now being more vocal about HIV. Because even though Joining Hearts has donated more than $2.1 million to HIV groups since its inception nearly 30 years ago, attendees at its parties don't hear much about the cause for which they are cocktailing. 

That's beginning to change, said Wes Berry (photo), president of Joining Hearts and the point person for the non-profit's expanding mission and deep dive into the cause it's been supporting since 1987.

"At Joining Hearts parties, you don't really see mention of HIV. You go to gay bars and don't see anything. You don't see it anywhere," Berry said. 

Yet HIV hits the South hard – and Atlanta even harder. Georgia has the third-highest rate in the U.S. of people likely to be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime, death rates among people with HIV are three times higher in the South, and Georgia scores pitifully low when it comes to people knowing their HIV status. Fulton County is a hotbed for new HIV cases that health officials this week announced an ambitious plan to eradicate the disease.

So Berry and Joining Hearts launched an effort earlier this year to talk – publicly and frankly – about HIV in Atlanta and expand the non-profit's mission to attack HIV head on. There were public forums and Berry's thought piece – Atlanta's HIV Crisis: What We Are Up Against – that detailed the stats that have some people comparing Atlanta's current HIV crisis to the one New York City experienced at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

"We are trying to start a dialogue," Berry said. "I want it to become cool to talk about this like it is in San Francisco. This is something we need. We need to open discussion. We need to come together for the health of Atlanta. No one else is going to do it."

As part of its new effort, Joining Hearts launched a marketing campaign that recalls the 1980s – ThrowbackATL: Remember the 80's. With slogans including "Choose PrEP," "Save Atlanta" and "HIV/AIDS Never Went Away," the non-profit debuted the new push with t-shirts and posters during its annual Sunday tea dance Change of Seasons in April. "Throwbacks aren't just for Thursdays. And HIV wasn't just an 80's crisis," reads one postcard. The campaign's inspiration came from the "Choose Life" t-shirts that George Michael wore in the music video for Wham's "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" in 1984.

"We're finding a dialogue that not only people can relate to but that also doesn't turn them away. It's a pretty non-aggressive way to communicate a message," Berry said.

'It's exciting and scary'

 

The organization's efforts to raise awareness of HIV also comes with plenty of cash muscle behind it. Joining Hearts donates nearly $200,000 a year. Traditionally, those funds went to three non-profits to focus on housing-related assistance for HIV-positive people. But with a new strategy and expanded mission, Joining Hearts made sweeping changes to its giving and now targets beneficiaries and programs that more directly impact HIV diagnoses.

The organization made the switch official in January and in May, announced the first grants awarded under the new guidelines. Some $5,000 to the Grady Infectious Disease Program to launch an emergency assistant fund, $5,000 to Positive Impact for a program to provide PrEP to 30 people, and $8,000 to Living Room for its emergency housing efforts.

"We want to make sure we are leveraging our funds to make the most impact," Berry said. "What can we fund that will make the most impact."

It's a big change for Joining Hearts and one that has generated some initial pushback, Berry said.

"It's exciting and scary. If you have an organization that for 28 years that was doing one thing that was needed and you shift, you never know if it's going to work," he said. 

"I think people get it. I think people see that there is a need and a time and they want to be part of solution," Berry added.

But just a few weeks away from its signature party in Piedmont Park – Joining Hearts 29 on July 16 – Berry said the impact of the group's new mission and changes to its charitable giving can already be seen.

"Joining Hearts is creating this momentum. We can make a difference together. So that’s really our focus – getting the word out there, getting people engaged and getting what’s needed funded," Berry said.