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On Thursday, 15 New Haven restaurants will transform their dining rooms into hubs of charity.

Participating in a national project called Dining Out for Life, these local restaurants will donate up to 50 percent of all dinner bills to local AIDS clinics. The event comes at a time when many local AIDS centers are struggling to meet the demand for their services, a situation fueled by federal funding cuts. Some city groups have seen their federal support decline by more than 50 percent this year.

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Dean Digioia, the manager at Sullivan’s, said the restaurant has been advertising the charity event for close to a month. By handing out informational bookmarks with every receipt and using word of mouth, he said, nearly every customer who has been in and out of Sullivan’s had the opportunity to hear about the event.

While Digioia said this event is a good start toward raising money and awareness for AIDS, the number of restaurants participating was not as high as he hoped.

“You have to give something back to the community, and this is the way that we’re trying to help at Sullivan’s,” Digioia said.

Leslie Saad, the owner of Diner 21, another participating restaurant, said that despite being a new restaurant they “wanted to contribute as much as we can” to the cause. Saad also said she hopes the event will draw new customers into the downtown neighborhood.

Though members of AIDS Project New Haven — the organization spearheading the local effort — expected the event to be a success, they said more assistance will be required to help the organization stay afloat. AIDS Project executive director Ellen Gabrielle said it was not possible for the one-day fundraiser to undo the damage done by the federal funding cuts.

Gabrielle said New Haven AIDS service agencies lost $200,000 in federal funding for the 2007-’08 fiscal year. As a result, she said, her agency has had to decrease the services it offers.

“Because of the cut we have lost two case managers, [temporarily] suspended our alternative therapy program, suspended our van transportation and have cut back on the quantity of food that we prepare and deliver to our home-bound clients,” Gabrielle said in an e-mail. “Despite all of that, we are not turning clients away. We must go on. If we don’t serve our clients, who will?”

Gabrielle said her organization hopes to use the funds raised from Dining Out for Life “to reactivate some of the services we have lost.” The event’s organizers do not have an estimate for how much money will be raised, since different restaurants committed to donate different percentages of their profits.

Jiaona Zhang ’10, a Silliman freshman who volunteers regularly in the city, said she thought that while budget cuts are not ideal, they can motivate private citizens to give more to worthy causes.

“The funding [cuts] have a positive side and a negative side,” Zhang said. “The negative side is that we’re not getting what we need. The good side is that certain people in society will make an effort and be like ‘Hey, we don’t have the funding,’ and so while the funding goes down, the awareness goes up.”

If the increased awareness promotes donations to AIDS groups, Zhang said, it could compensate for the funding cuts.

The April 15 “Cut-A-Thon” event also raised money for AIDS Project New Haven by coordinating local salons who agreed to give haircuts in exchange for donations to the group.

Dining Out for Life, which began 17 years ago in Philadelphia, is a national project that has grown to include over 50 cities in the U.S. and Canada.

Participating restaurants include Assaggio in Branford, The Blue Pearl, Tre Scalini, Casa Nostra, Diner 21, Bulldog Burrito, Sullivan’s, Katz II on Temple, ME ‘N U, Quattro’s, Chip’s Family Restaurant in Orange, Reno’s Pizzeria in Orange, Poncho’s Cantina and 168 York Street Cafe.