This week I'll be attending one of the Philadelphia region's largest dinner parties, one that not only brings people together, but inspires them to unite for a common cause: The fight against AIDS. On Thursday more than 150 restaurants will play host to the 23rd year of Dining Out For Life. What started as a small fund raiser has made our community stronger and better equipped to handle the epidemic than ever before. Much of that success is due to its creator, Action AIDS.

When Action AIDS first approached me to put together a table of notable individuals to help bring light to the issue and support the event, it was a difficult task. Twenty-three years ago, people who were HIV-positive weren't grandstanding, they were hiding or dying. AIDS was still a death sentence and thought to be an exclusively gay men's disease. Since its transmission was not understood, many shied away from the gay community and its events. Those who came to that first Dining out For Life were early leaders of the crisis, and heroes to the community.

Knowing the great work of Action AIDS in the early years as one of the region's leading providers, it was something that seemed like a novel idea. But who to ask? Who would be the brave few notables who would join me in public to dine out for life? They'd be intimately associated with HIV/AIDS. After all, Rock Hudson had just died a few years earlier, and people were dying around the country in the tens of thousands.

The first year and table were small compared to the grand scale this annual dinner has become. But that first night was a game changer, since it began to show the face of a caring city. The invites resulted in a table with David L. Cohen, then Chief of Staff to Mayor Rendell and now Executive Vice President at Comcast, State Senators and Representatives, Councilman Jim Kenney and Mayor Rendell himself.

These people showed a city that it was the right thing to do to stand up with people with HIV. To me they are as heroic as those in Action AIDS who fight day after day and those with HIV/AIDS who fight everyday. These days, many of those people have proper medication and live close to a normal life.

As the years go by and the crisis seems to ebb, in reality it has not. There are still people who get infected every day, many of whom don't realize until years later. But thanks to the education work that Action AIDS and other HIV/AIDS organizations provide, people now know it is safe to be tested, and are taught to test often, and get treated. It no longer has to be a death sentence. People now live with HIV.

Each of those brave public officials who were there that first year have continued to come, not every year, but many. This year Ed Rendell and Councilman Kenney from that first year will join me again at a table that, at the time of writing this, has grown to 18 people. I'm attempting to keep it at 18, but you can see it has become a very popular event. A welcome addition this year is City Council President Darrell Clarke, who I've had the pleasure of working with on the Boy Scouts issue. David L. Cohen, who has made most dinners out of all, will not be there this year, but will join us in spirit.

Ed Rendell sent me an email last week asking if it was okay to show up late this year. It brought a smile since we all know that Ed is always late. Ed, you were there that first year, when few others were. You can never be late to this party. Your chair will be waiting.

If you'd like to help join the fight, all you have to do is go out to eat on Thursday at one of the over 150 participating restaurants in Philly as well as many cities around the region. Enjoy a nice meal, spend time with people you care about, and dine out for life. For information and list of participating Restaurants go to http://actionaids.org/events/dining-out-for-life. 

Mark Segal is one of Philadelphia's most awarded opinion writers and has been recognized by the National Newspaper Association, Pennsylvania News-media Association, Suburban Newspapers of America and the Society of Professional Journalists, among others. He can be reached via Facebook or Twitter.