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By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly
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Michael Kaplan addresses enthusiastic walkers the morning of 2012's record-breaking AIDS Walk Portland.

Saying goodbye is always the hardest, isn’t it? Even if it is for the best, and the person leaving is about to do some great things. There’s just something about the leaders of our nonprofits — they keep getting plucked for these big-time, far-reaching assignments. First, Kendall Clawson leaves Q Center for Salem — and now Michael Kaplan is leaving Cascade AIDS Project (CAP) for AIDS United in Washington, D.C.
CAP announced Kaplan’s departure just before this year’s record-setting AIDS Walk — an event that went off without a hitch, attracting the city’s and state’s finest, including Governor John Kitzhaber, who praised CAP’s work and momentum, especially when contrasted with some spots around the nation without anything like it.

“There are definitely a few places that might be tired or lackluster, but there are so many others doing amazing things,” Kaplan said of the governor’s assessment. “The reality, though: after 30 years, a lot of folks are just burnt out.”

“I actually think now is the most exciting time for this work,” he continued. “After 20 years of living with HIV, for the first time I believe there’s a clear path to ending this epidemic. We just learned early treatment not only extends life — but it reduces the likelihood of infecting partners by 96 percent. That’s huge.”

Kitz heaped a bunch of praise on the work CAP has done — and does. But it hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows.

“My first year at CAP we had some real challenges,” Kaplan recalled. “We laid off six staff and had a $330,000 deficit. That said, there is a great group of people there and a lot of history. I’m the seventh executive director, and each one before me moved it to where it is today. More important are the hundreds of folks who get involved — board members, staff, or volunteers — those people make that place work.”

AIDS United, Kaplan’s new digs, is a nonprofit that formed in 2010 after a merger between the National AIDS Fund and AIDS Action Council. Their stated mission: to end the epidemic in the United States — and to do so, they coordinate grants, technical assistance, and steer policymaking.

“One of the things that really excites me about AIDS United is the clear and concise mission to end AIDS in the U.S,” Kaplan said. “During my 10 years of working in D.C., before moving to Portland, I worked internationally — with staff and programs around the globe. I’ve seen a lot of domestic talent and energy turn with excitement to international work, but for me, the opportunity to now focus exclusively on the U.S. at such an incredible turning point in this epidemic is exciting.”

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Kaplan and his partner, Sean Sasser, pose for an AIDS Walk 2012 image.

Even with all that excitement comes with rather bittersweet realization that he and his partner, Sean, will be pretty far away from some of their now-favorite spots.

“I lived in D.C. from 1998 to 2008 and I loved it — there’s so much going on there and so much to do. But I’m a much better person for the four years I’ve spent in Oregon. I’ve learned to create a better balance between work and life, and to enjoy the day-to-day stuff more. There’s just so much here — whether it’s going to Mount Hood, the Gorge, or just walking from our house in Mt. Tabor. I really can’t think of a more beautiful place in the world — especially between July 5 and the end of September.”
And they’ll be taking the memory of one of their most meaningful experiences — and a particularly brave one — with them: while in Portland, Kaplan and his partner became foster parents.

“The foster parenting was really thanks to Sean,” he said. “I don’t think I would have done it if not for him, but I’m so glad we did. We took Alice in at 4 — and she was supposed to be a two-week placement. She ended up staying with us for a year and a half. She’s now been adopted by her aunt — but we try to stay in touch. That, like living in Oregon, really changed my outlook on life, and I think parenting really helped balance me. I’ve always been a little impatient and I had to learn to be a lot more patient.”

“Sean and I are having lots of talks about doing it again,” he added, “but first we need to get moved and situated in D.C. before looking deeper. And, what can I say, the Oregon Department of Human Services was great to work with; they had no issue with two gay, HIV-positive men raising Alice, nor did Alice’s family. They were really supportive and there’s definitely a huge need — you have to go through a lot before they’ll place someone. Classes, home assessment, references, background checks — so much more. But once you’re there, it’s worth it.”

CAP certainly has some big shoes to fill — but, as Kaplan points out, it’s really about the framework already in place — and community engagement.

“I’ve felt very lucky for this opportunity at CAP and I know the success of the agency is the result of a lot of different people and communities working together. It’s about dynamic individuals taking collective action — that’s how CAP succeeds. But, in the end, it won’t be collective action that ends the epidemic. It’ll come down to individual ones: each person committing to knowing their status, to getting linked to care and treatment, and, when warranted, to being open about their status. It’s a commitment to having the hard conversations about the things that put us at risk and not turning our backs on those infected.”

The search for Kaplan’s successor is on — and we’ll follow that story as it develops. In the interim, let us say: bon voyage, Michael (and Sean, too). You’re welcome back anytime. Portland will be here with open arms.

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