No one is more in awe of the scene than Kaplan herself, who was diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in 1994. Then 29, she couldn't imagine ever smiling again. Certain that she faced a death sentence, Kaplan, who is heterosexual, tried desperately to find a support group that would offer solace. But the only ones she found were geared toward gay men or drug addicts. "I knew there had to be other straight people out there with HIV," says Kaplan, now 37, who believes she was infected by a boyfriend. "I just couldn't find them."
So in 1995 the former caterer created her own. The nonprofit Center for Positive Connections is the only HIV-support group for heterosexual men and women in Florida and one of the few nationwide. It began with eight women whom she found through a local clinic. They met occasionally in an AIDS coalition office for coffee and conversation about everything from dating to depression. Today the center, which relies on donations and grants for its $15,000 monthly budget, is housed in a 2,000-sq.-ft. office, where 969 members—ages 17 to 75—attend weekly group counseling sessions. They can learn about the latest medications or work out in the gym while their children read and color in the playroom. But many drop by simply because it's the only place they can be themselves. "It's horrible when you're always hiding and lying," says a 38-year-old divorced woman who keeps her condition secret even from her 12-year-old son. "It's so much better to be able to talk with people who understand."
And sometimes it's nice just to be able to forget for a while. Kaplan organizes movie outings, picnics and an annual weeklong Caribbean cruise. She also plays Cupid, urging unattached members to place personal ads in the center's monthly newsletter. "I'm a yenta—a little matchmaker," says Kaplan, who recently ended a six-month relationship with a man who is HIV-negative. "I want everybody to be in love." What she wants even more is for everyone to practice safe sex. "I made the mistake of not using condoms," Kaplan says, "and look what happened to me."
Kaplan's journey into harm's way began after her parents, Adrian, 56, a homemaker, and Bob, 57, a landscaper, divorced in 1973. She and her two sisters moved with their mother from Plainview, N.Y., to Fort Covington, N.Y. Kaplan found the tiny factory town boring, and at 15, when she visited her father and stepmother Natalie, 63, in Miami, she never went back. A self-described "party animal," she skipped college after graduating from Southridge High School in 1982, eventually becoming a cake decorator for Baskin-Robbins. In her mid-20s, she moved to Manhattan and worked in the ad department of High Times, a magazine extolling marijuana use. "That's probably when I got infected with HIV," she says. "I was dating a lot and I wasn't using protection."
In 1989 she returned to Miami and started a catering business with her sister Ellen, 35. She also fell in love. She and her boyfriend decided to take HIV tests. Two weeks later, when the clinic gave her the news, "I thought, 'This can't be happening to me,'" Kaplan recalls. "'I'm not a statistic. I'm a nice Jewish girl.'"
She lost her beau, who had tested negative, and gave up her business in despair. Convinced that her future would be short and bleak, she maxed out her credit cards on a two-month trip to Europe. But the voyage renewed her joy in life, and she decided to share it.
She returned to Miami and founded her group. Not surprisingly, her initial move was to throw a party. She distributed fliers to clinics throughout South Florida, and 25 people showed up for the first soiree. "I overheard someone say, 'You're the first person I've talked to about this in five years, other than my doctor,'" she recalls. "I knew then this was my purpose in life."
These days Kaplan, whose annual salary is $26,000, works 12-hour days raising money, training volunteers and giving pep talks to group members. Remarkably, she has shown no symptoms of AIDS, and her T-cell count remains high enough that she needs no medication. For now, with her doctor's blessing, Kaplan relies on a healthy diet, exercise and regular doses of emotional reinforcement. "Getting hugs and thanks from the members," she says, "that's what keeps me going."
Lori Rozsa in Miami