to HIV Children:
"Toys (and Lots Else) Are Us"
Back in 1986, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic
was in its years of explosive growth, Professor Frank Betancourt
and some of his students in the Hospitality Management Department
at New York City Technical College sensed the need for toys
and TLC for children in the city infected with or affected by
the disease. Their holiday-season drive brought in about 500
toys that first year.
|Betancourt, at right, helps
release balloons in memory of those lost to AIDS at the
annual "Parade of Gifts" in City Tech's Atrium
Recognizing the continuing need for such help to young victims
of HIV/AIDS, Betancourt formally established the Gifts for
Special Children Project under City Tech auspices, and since
then the Project has grown into a monstera very nice monster,
mind you, filled with the decidedly un-Grinch-like spirit of
giving. It is estimated that 100,000 toys for infants up to
16-year-olds have been distributed by the Project so far. Betancourt,
who now chairs the Hospitality Management Department, expects
to gather about 9,000 gifts this year, They will go to more
than 25 metropolitan-area institutions serving children with
The drive kicks off in early November and, as usual, climaxes
with a gala December luncheon honoring outstanding individuals
in the pediatric HIV/AIDS field held in City Tech's Janet Lefler
Dining Room, followed by a gathering around the assembled toys
in the College's Atrium Building Gallery. This year the awards
ceremony and the viewing of the small Mt. Everest of toys will
be on the afternoon of Dec. 13th. Betancourt's active fund-raising
in the private and corporate sector (not to mention his "special"
way of involving College students, faculty, and staff) has made
it possible for the Project to add several more "chapters"
to the toy story. The Project also outfits hospitals with such
equipment as highchairs, swings, strollers, and cribs; it creates
child- life and clinic play areas with crafts materials, computer
and video games, and televisions in waiting-room areas; and
to date it has created seventeen mini-childrenôs libraries in
centers and clinics.
The Project also boasts a speakers
bureau that disseminates information debunking myths and misconceptions
about the disease, as well as a special events bureau that facilities
when outside organizations desire to provide parties for special
children. The Project has also pushed beyond the Christmas season
with such programs as "Give a Bunny Day" in the spring.
The Project's close association with the Brooklyn AIDS Task
Force (BATF), where it helps fund the Nancy Duran Child Life
Center, is no surprise. BATF's founding chair in 1987, Dr. Victor
Ayala, has been a City Tech colleague of Betancourt's since
the mid-80s and has been involved with the Project from the
early days. (Ayala is now chair of City Techôs Human Services
The Special Gifts Award-winners are invariably from flung walks
of life. Among them have been, for example, Clara "Mother"
Hale of Harlem's Hale House (the first recipient), Phyllis Gurdin,
founder of the Leake & Watts specialized foster care program
for HIV/AIDS, Patrick O'Connell, the founder of Visual AIDS,
and Joey DiPaolo, the Staten Island teenager whose struggle
with AIDS inspired a TV movie and who became a vocal media activist.
Betancourtôs devotion to youngsters with HIV has extended well
beyond the Project. Since 1985 he and his partner, Dante Tarantini,
have adopted six boys with HIV. Alex, Jonathan, Mickey, and
Michael have died, but 16-year-old Davon is now in high school
and 11-year-old Dante is thriving, having sero-converted to
negative status. "We have four angels in heaven and two
little devils here," Betancourt says with obvious affection.