Photos of smiling faces are set on shelves around a cosy sitting area at The Lighthouse Centre, where a few Abbotsford residents gathered on Thursday for a candlelight vigil to mark World AIDS Day, and to remember their friends.
The people in the photos - Mark, Terry, Cheryl and others - are gone but remembered as good friends and loving souls who contracted a terrible disease, HIV/AIDS.
The Lighthouse Centre is a drop-in site for the Positive Living Fraser Valley Society in Abbotsford, which offers practical support and education services and social connections for HIV positive individuals and their families.
Mark Smith was one of the founding members of the society, and most recently he was the board chairman, right up until his death at the age of 55 on Nov. 3.
Thanks to anti-viral drugs, he had lived fairly well with AIDS for 30 years, then he developed lymphoma about two years ago.
"It was a huge loss for us," said Bridget Findlay, the HIV/AIDS program co-ordinator with this community's Mennonite Central Committee, and also a director with PLFV. "Mark was a wonderful man, and a very giving person."
Currently the society serves close to 70 people, and that number is expected to grow as the society will now also provide services for people with hepatitis C, said Finlay.
"We've served about 200 people since we incorporated in 2006. Now, with the addition of Hep C caseloads, that number could grow substantially," she said.
"The demand for services is much bigger than we can actually give, but we're restricted by time, manpower, and money."
PLFV provides the local AIDS community with two fulltime outreach workers and a co-ordinator who offer counselling and support, and two part-time outreach workers for those with Hep C. The Fraser East region has the third highest rate of Hep C in B.C., according to 2008 Fraser Health data.
Workers will go out to meet those who are too afraid to be seen at the drop-in centre, due to the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.
The society is primarily funded through Health Canada grants, with support from Fraser Health, Vancouver Foundation, Shooting Star Foundation and private donors.
It has close ties with the MCC, which has had a local AIDS support group since the 1980s, and with Abbotsford Community Services poverty and food bank programs specifically for people who have HIV/AIDS. Anyone donating to the food bank can specify their donations go to this program.
Along with the obvious warm camaraderie of the drop-in centre and its practical resources, much of the support offered here involves driving.
Since there are no AIDS medical specialists in Abbotsford, most of the HIV-positive society members go to Vancouver to get their life-preserving anti-viral drugs and other medical supports.
While a few hold jobs and take care of their families, others are on disability pensions and cannot work, let alone afford a car. Fraser Health pays for one car, but outreach workers also use their own vehicles.
The support from PLFV literally becomes a matter of life or death for some.
"For me this place is important because when care isn't accessible, it doesn't exist. This place provides that access," said Shannon, a longtime PLFV member. If people can't afford to move to Vancouver, or find transportation, "you just go without and people start dying."
Positive Living Fraser Valley will hold its annual Christmas banquet on Dec. 8 at Abbotsford Community Services.
PLFV is also looking for the donation of a vehicle to transport people to their medical appointments in Vancouver. If you'd like to help, or find out more about Positive Living, see plfv.org or call them at 604-854-1101.