In 1985, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Project Lazarus opened its doors to provide a safe haven of peace and love for people dying from an AIDS-related illness. Starting out as a hospice, Project Lazarus has evolved to provide services for underserved communities impacted by HIV. From finding housing to a holistic clinical program, Project Lazarus has been a vital resource for New Orleans. It's remarkable that such a place was able to become successful in 1985, and it turns out, the organization wasn't on its own.
Project Lazarus first became possible with the sponsorship of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which provided buildings to support the program. From the beginning, members of this religious community came together to help get Project Lazarus off the ground, and their support continues to this day.
That support comes in the form of an annual Halloween party weekend that was created almost 40 years ago by Halloween New Orleans with the sole purpose of raising funds for Project Lazarus. With 100 percent of the proceeds of the event going to Project Lazarus, Halloween New Orleans helms the largest fundraiser for the organization. Annually, Halloween New Orleans puts on one of the most extravagant events of spooky season, and this year is no exception.
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President of Halloween New Orleans Neil Savoy shares the inspiration behind this year's theme, saying, "We've never, in all our history, done an Alice in Wonderland party and this was our chance to do it. It's such a specific theme that is perfect for Halloween and we've truly outdone ourselves to honor the classic tale."
With this theme in mind, this year's events include the Queen's Ball, a Nightmare in Wonderland costume party, a Mad Hatter's Tea Dance brunch, and a parade through the New Orleans French Quarter. And everyone involved, including talent like Aquaria and Jake Wesley Rogers, is excited for the unforgettable experiences coming this month.
DJ Alexis Tucci is excited about all of the costumes that will be on display throughout the weekend, including her own. However, in her own words, the "only fear I have is that I won't be able to hold a candle to the stunning and spectacular 'lewks' of the exquisite Aquaria!" She is also looking forward to performing with St. Louis musical artist Jesse Gannon during the Queen's Ball. She teases, "He will be accompanying me while I play and we have some really vibey narratives to lay down throughout the evening's festivities, ending in a crescendo of energy!"
Musical artist Joey with the Mustache is also pumped to share his music with a giant crowd who are liberated in embracing their queerness. "There's no place for queer self-expression like Halloween New Orleans, and I couldn't be more excited to join a lineup of really tremendous talent," he says. "The weekend of events looks absolutely stunning from beginning to end, and for me, getting the chance to spin bright, uplifting house and disco music at the New Orleans Jazz Museum is a dream come true." There is a lot of fun to be had but it isn't the primary reason why everyone got involved.
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Virgin Hotels, a sponsor for Halloween New Orleans, summed up why everyone wanted to be a part of this event, sharing that they "are very excited to support Halloween New Orleans and the amazing community work Project Lazarus has pioneered over the years. To be able to count Virgin Hotels New Orleans among the ranks of those that support the mission of Project Lazarus is simply humbling." And there's a reason why Project Lazarus needs this support.
There is a misconception in the LGBTQ+ community that HIV is no longer a detriment to one's life. Yes, there have been major breakthroughs in medicine, but people living with HIV need more support in accessing care, explain Project Lazarus Executive Director Susanne Dietzel and Director of Development Rodney Thoulion.
"No one really understands the other challenges our community faces. When you think about intersectionality, you're looking at how different social categories like race and gender connect together to understand how someone is disadvantaged. Generally, people don't understand that the community we serve have barriers to accessing treatment because they don't have enough money, or they don't have easy access to resources. There are so many factors that can bar a person from getting treatment," Dietzel laments.
Project Lazarus steps in to remove those barriers so that anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, can have access to treatment. They also understand that there are other comorbid factors unrelated to HIV that need addressing. Thoulion explains, "We're focused on housing, healing, empowering, and supporting our community, and that does not end with treating HIV. Preparing our community for successful and independent lives includes improving self-esteem and life skills. Without this comprehensive approach, success for our community is limited."
Project Lazarus and Halloween New Orleans are committed to continuing their work for this community while growing their missions to support anyone living with HIV. For Project Lazarus, Dietzel and Thoulion look forward to creating an educational program to debunk any misconceptions about HIV and to spread awareness of the barriers to a healthy life many still face. For Halloween New Orleans, Savoy wants to continue evolving the annual event with the future in mind.
"We're constantly trying to see what we can do next. I love bringing new blood on the team that can come up with new and inventive ways to interest people into attending. We're the only event like this in New Orleans, and we're one of the only nonprofit organizations to donate all proceeds, so we have a duty to keep topping ourselves and continue the success we bring to our community."
The parent company of Out, equalpride, is also helping to sponsor Halloween New Orleans.
"equalpride is proud to join forces with Halloween New Orleans for this year's festivities," said
Michel J. Pelletier, equalpride's Chief Marketing Officer. "We believe in building uplifting connections with our diverse LGBTQ+ communities through our event and nonprofit partners. [Halloween New Orleans] very important work at the local level and deserve our support. equalpride firmly believes in raising and uplifting the voices and experiences of all people -- a vision shared with Halloween New Orleans."
With the decades-long partnership that Project Lazarus and Halloween New Orleans have, there is no doubt that this monumental event will continue to succeed well into the future.
Halloween New Orleans Wonderland runs from October 28 through October 30. The Queen's Ball lasts from 7 to 10 p.m. on October 28 at the Ogden Museum of Art. Nightmare in Wonderland lasts from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. on October 29. Mad Hatter's Tea Dance lasts from 2:30 to 6 p.m. on October 30. Learn more about it and buy your passes here by going down the rabbit hole at HalloweenNewOrleans.com.