Local restaurants participate in Dine Out for Life • St Pete Catalyst

Within a week from today, nearly 30 restaurants in Pinellas County will donate a significant portion of their sales to support area residents living with HIV and AIDS.

In his 17e year, Dining Out For Life is an annual fundraiser supported by local volunteers, corporate sponsors and restaurants. According to its website, more than 50 local HIV service organizations partner with more than 2,400 restaurants, 4,100 volunteers and 300,000 diners to raise $4.5 million each year for people living with HIV and AIDS in the United States and Canada. This year’s event is Wednesday, April 27, and times vary by location.

All funds raised through each participating city’s Dining Out For Life event stay in this area to help local residents. In Tampa Bay, the two nonprofit organizations responsible for setting up and running the event are the Suncoast Hospice Foundation and Empath Partners in Care (EPIC), member Empath Health. For nearly 60 years, EPIC has provided comprehensive, comprehensive services to people living with HIV throughout Tampa Bay.

Joy Winheim, executive director of EPIC, said having people in towns across the county thinking and talking about something creates some much-needed buzz about it.

Joy Winheim, Executive Director of EPIC.

“Because we all know HIV isn’t talked about as much on social media or in the news or anywhere else these days,” she said. “And what better way to support a good organization than to go out and have a meal with your friends – which is what people do anyway.”

Winheim said advances in treatments and the normalization of living with HIV/AIDS have resulted in unintended consequences. She explained that for the past 30 years, health officials have preached that with the right medications and lifestyles, infected people can live long and relatively normal lives.

She believes the messaging is pushing many people to take more risks rather than change their behavior, while lowering the level of awareness and support for those struggling to cope with the virus.

“It’s not so scary anymore,” she said. “So we kind of shot ourselves in the foot a little bit that way.”

Dining Out For Life hopes to increase local awareness of HIV/AIDS and support the myriad of services that EPIC provides to its clients, regardless of their HIV status, gender or gender identity. Winheim said EPIC offers unique resources not typically found at similar organizations, such as down payment and housing deposit assistance.

Winheim added that the funding is unlimited, which allowed EPIC to recently purchase a bike for a customer in need of transportation. She said the nonprofit could also set aside money for big projects, such as building apartments or basic necessities like groceries and toiletries.

“It (the money raised) supports support services that grants don’t,” she said.

Community needs abound in Pinellas County. According to AIDSVu.org, there were 4,703 residents living with HIV in 2019 and 184 new cases. This equates to 544 county residents per 100,000 population, which is higher than the regional average of 451 and the national average of 380 per 100,000 population. The number of new cases in Pinellas was also proportionally higher than the regional and national average.

This map, courtesy of aidsvu.org, shows the rate of residents living with HIV. Pinellas and Hillsborough counties top the regional and national averages.

Brooke Boccacino, director of philanthropy affiliated with the Suncoast Hospice Foundation, which raises funds for EPIC through Dining Out for Life, said the event has grown over the years. Although she said the pandemic has hampered fundraising for the past two years and current staffing and supply chain shortages add a hurdle, she is pleased with the restaurant community’s response.

“We see them all coming back,” she said. “And I think everyone is very excited to come out and support EPIC and participate.”

The 27 participating restaurants donate at least 10% of their sales to the cause, while most donate 25%. The Frog Pond distributes 50% of its sales to two locations – St. Pete Beach and Redington Beach. Winheim called the support incredible and noted that “the restaurants are full” during the event. She said customers specifically seek out participating restaurants and go out for breakfast, lunch and dinner that day.

The Dog Bar, located in St. Pete’s Greater Central District, is one of only two establishments that include liquor sales in donations. Winheim said the organizations advertise the restaurants and assign volunteer ambassadors to help publicize attendees.

Brooke Boccacino, director of philanthropy affiliated with the Suncoast Hospice Foundation, which raises funds for EPIC through Dining Out for Life.

Over the past 10 years, Boccacino said, the event has raised about $425,000 for AIDS and HIV patients. Despite the ongoing pandemic, she said the Suncoast Hospice Foundation and EPIC raised about $41,000 during Dining Out for Life Day last year.

“It’s pretty amazing,” she said.

For more information on EPIC’s services, visit the website here. For a full list of participating restaurants and hours of operation, visit the Dining Out for Life website here.

Gladys T. Hensley