Volunteers take center stage at GayBINGO

The LGBT and ally communities will dress to the nines and hope for the lucky number at the AIDS Fund’s Black-Tie GayBINGO tonight.

The 10th-annual event will feature the same campy entertainment as always, guided by the antics of the drag-queens-on-skates Bingo-Verifying Divas, but it will also raise vital funds for area HIV/AIDS organizations and give recognition to a few of the individuals who’ve made AIDS Fund’s work possible over the past year.

The Favorite Straight Person of the Year Award, an honor that’s been in existence since the first black-tie event, will be given to John Cella, outgoing director of Philadelphia’s AIDS Activities Coordinating Office.

Cella joined the office in 1993 and took over as director in 2004. A frequent face at community events — such as those sponsored by Mazzoni Center, the Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutritional Alliance and Action AIDS — Cella has also been a constant presence at AIDS Fund’s annual AIDS Walk. He not only participates in the walk each year, but has also assisted with the creation of AIDS Walk promotional materials, spoken during the event and organized large contingents of city workers to get involved.

He said that while the recognition is not necessary, the gratitude of the LGBT community is meaningful to him.

“I’ve always felt that it’s an honor to serve in the field. I’ve taken HIV work very, very seriously, as well as the communities that we serve through AACO,” he said. “With this, I feel like they’re recognizing the work I’ve done for the LGBT community, which is very special to me because this is one of the main communities that we work with, and they’re recognizing that I’ve cared and that I’ve tried.”

Cella will retire from AACO in June, and Robb Reichard, AIDS Fund executive director, said the award is a timely tribute.

“John has been involved in the HIV/AIDS community through his work with the Philadelphia Health Department for many, many years, and he’s really been involved in a variety of components as the director of AACO,” he said. “He’s getting ready to retire, so we wanted to acknowledge the years of dedication that he put in.”

Cella said he will continue to dedicate his time to HIV/AIDS-service organizations in the region after his retirement.

“I’m sad to be leaving, but I plan to stay involved on a volunteer basis,” he said. “I have an activist mentality beneath this bureaucratic exterior.”

AIDS Fund will also present its Ferrara Family Volunteers of the Year Award, which has been given out for about five years, to Trish Houck and her children, Leah and Eric.

The Bridesburg family first started volunteering at the monthly GayBINGO events about five years ago when Leah started at Central High School, which requires students to fulfill a certain number of volunteer hours throughout the school year at an organization of their choice.

Trish Houck said she initially heard about GayBINGO from a PBS documentary about the events.

“I thought it looked like fun and it benefits a great cause,” Houck said. “I planned to volunteer with her and we started going to the events, and it was so much fun that we continued throughout her years at Central.”

Houck’s son, Eric, joined his mom and sister, who is now a student at Kutztown University, to earn his own volunteer hours when he started at Central in 2006.

The family has also participated in numerous AIDS Walks, arriving at the Parkway before daybreak to help set up for the event.

“I’m a real advocate of being good for nothing. Even before the kids had to get service hours, we’d been involved in various organizations,” Houck said. “I’m hoping to instill in them some commitment to giving something back to the community, to lend a hand however you can and in any small way you can. Every little bit helps the bigger cause.”

Reichard said the AIDS Fund does have some families who volunteer at their events, but it’s rare to see a family that lends as much of its time as the Houcks.

“Trish and her children have been involved for a number of years and they’re really consistent,” Reichard said. “They’ve been at every Bingo, every AIDS Walk and we’ve watched Eric and Leah grow over the years, so we wanted to acknowledge them.”

Houck said she and her children did not know anyone with HIV/AIDS prior to this experience and do not have any close friends or family members who are LGBT, but their involvement with AIDS Fund has helped to expose her kids to the diverse populations within the city.

“I wanted to make an effort for the kids to feel comfortable with people of all genders, ages, sizes and orientations. This was a way to introduce them to another group of people in our community and give them the opportunity to become comfortable with all types of people.”

Black-Tie GayBINGO will kick off at 6:30 p.m. at the Crystal Tea Room, 1201 Market St.

Tickets to the event are $150 and include dinner, a silent auction and six Bingo games. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (215) 731-9255.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].