It is with both pride and sadness that CAHR presented the 2015 Red Ribbon Award posthumously to Elisse Zack, co-founder and founding executive director of the Canadian Working Group on HIV and Rehabilitation (CWGHR). The Red Ribbon Award is presented annually by CAHR for outstanding service to the cause of research in a way that has increased our understanding of the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS, while enhancing the quality of life of those living with this disease. The nomination was led by two longstanding friends and colleagues of Elisse, Dr. Kelly O’Brien and Dr. Francisco Ibanez-Carrasco.
If anyone embodied this award, it was Elisse. From teaching ESL for the Toronto School Board, to her role as Co-coordinator of the Rexdale Women’s Centre, to her work with the Canadian AIDS Society and finally the co-founding of the Canadian Working Group on HIV and Rehabilitation in 1998, Elisse worked tirelessly to improve the lives of others. Yet, despite her great achievements, she avoided the spotlight and would quickly pass on the credit to her colleagues. Francisco Ibanez-Carrasco describes her as selfless and determined; “She really put herself to the service of the HIV movement. She wanted to see workplace accommodations for those living with HIV and other episodic disabilities,” says Francisco. “She was dogged, but always so respectful and compassionate. She was tenacious and careful at the same time.” Stephen Tattle from CWGHR echoes the sentiment: “Elisse was tireless in her commitment to creating change. She gave a lot of her life to that.”
Her legacy is one of partnership and infectious enthusiasm. Elisse saw the similarities in the challenges of people living with HIV and those living with other chronic episodic illnesses. With this in mind, she reached out to cancer and diabetes advocacy groups, uniting their common message to improve quality of life for their members. Elisse believed there was strength in numbers and in order to ensure appropriate accommodations for people living with episodic illnesses, a strong voice was needed. “She truly had such a passion for enhancing health and quality of life of people with episodic illnesses.” says Kelly. Her passion has paved the way for rehabilitation research, and implementation of policies and programs to improve to quality of life for those living with HIV.
Thanks to Elisse’s determination and the collaborations she orchestrated, the message continues to be heard even in her absence. “She had an incredible way of bringing people together and her enthusiasm bubbled over into others who had the opportunity to work with her,” says Kelly. Francisco attributes these ongoing effects to Elisse’s ability to convey the importance of her cause. “For her, the issue was very clear and she made it clear to others. She managed to describe it to people, researchers, and policy people who continue to work on these issues. I work in her legacy every day.”