Coby Palmer

Coby Palmer’s impact on the Central Indiana community is perhaps matched only by the enormity of the cause with which he’s most often associated.

“Thirty-seven years ago I helped with one of the oldest fundraisers for AIDS in the country,” he said. “Here in Indianapolis it was an unbelievable crisis, but the city stepped up to the plate, from mayors to the everyday person.”

Palmer and his peers in The Bag Ladies – one of the city’s most storied LGBTQ organizations – mobilized the fight against AIDS at a time when funeral homes often refused to handle the body of anyone who had died of the disease. Their initial event raised $2,000 to benefit Gay Men’s Health Crisis, but it laid the groundwork for decades of grassroots initiatives and parties funding a network of HIV- and AIDS-related nonprofits.

“We’re still fighting the fight,” Palmer said, “but without the people of Indianapolis we would have never been able to develop the Damien Center and other programs.”

Located on the Near Eastside of downtown, the Damien Center is Indiana’s largest AIDS relief organization, serving more than 25 percent of Hoosiers living with HIV. Among a variety of care and services offered to its clients, it operates a food pantry named in honor of Palmer.

Long before earning acclaim for his efforts, Palmer recalls learning the value of serving others from his parents and grandparents. It was while growing up in Fulton, N.Y., that he observed a constant stream of simple gestures like helping neighbors in times of bereavement and preparing boxes of supplies for local Boy Scout troops.

Palmer carried this homegrown appreciation for service to Indianapolis. A mentor noted his passion for people and encouraged active citizenship, placing him on a volunteer Christamore House committee. Other commitments soon followed, but his greatest philanthropic passion was ahead.

Already 37 years down the road, Palmer knows the battle with HIV and AIDS is far from over, but he hopes the progress made in Central Indiana thus far serves as one of many reminders of the region’s potential.

“I hope we never give up what we have. The community here supports everything from the arts to sports, and it helps everyone grow,” he said. “When I first came here it was a small town. It’s a small town, but it has a big heart.”