No matter what the weather, AIDS Walk participants keep going to raise necessary funds for the cause.

While it would be difficult to overstate the importance of AIDS Walk fundraisers in the battle against HIV and AIDS, the events themselves couldn’t be much simpler.

Participants solicit donations from family and friends before gathering together on event day to walk a pre-determined course through town. For some Walks, a registration fee is collected in lieu of pledges. In either case, all money raised goes to one or more local AIDS charities.

The concept isn’t new or unique to AIDS fundraising — the CROP Walk to fight hunger and poverty has successfully used this charity model since the late ’60s. What is different, however, is the politically charged climate from which the AIDS Walk movement emerged.

The first AIDS Walk was held in Los Angeles in 1985 to benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles. Four years in and with the U.S. death toll approaching 5,000, the epidemic was still being treated like a radioactive social issue rather than a critical health concern.

President Ronald Reagan mentioned the word “AIDS” in public for the first time in ’85, and then only in response to a reporter’s questions. Congress’ anemic funding for care and research showed no signs that lawmakers considered AIDS a priority issue either.

Among the public, the belief that people with AIDS could be divided into innocent victims (hemophiliacs, babies born to infected mothers) and the deserving (gays, drug users) was still widespread. Lingering fear about how the disease could be spread fueled pervasive ostracism and discrimination against the infected.

From this dire environment sprang the first AIDS Walk, which is significant both for the fact that it established a means for the community to raise life-saving aid money that the government wasn’t providing as well as for the courage of the walkers who braved the stigma associated with AIDS.

Following on the heels of the L.A. walkers were participants at similar events in New York and San Francisco. Before long, AIDS Walks were being organized in cities from coast to coast, including the Carolinas where multiple events are held across the region each year.

On Apr. 5, the 15th Walk for AIDS was held to benefit low-income individuals living with advanced AIDS at House of Mercy in Belmont, N.C. The three-mile walk began at 10 a.m. on the Sisters of Mercy campus and concluded on the House of Mercy grounds.

“It was a soggy day so we had about 100 people show up with their raincoats and umbrellas. We raised $32,000 so we actually surpassed our goal,” Margie Storch, Director of Development for House of Mercy, told Q-Notes. “Our goal was $25,000 so I guess we should hope for rain in future years,” she quipped.

In addition to the walk, Storch said participants were treated to a post-event meal, prizes and music by local band Jamundo. Speeches were given by Honorary Walk Chair Beatrice Thompson, news and public affairs director at WBAV-FM, and former House of Mercy resident Michael Hardesty, who related how the care and support he received at the facility indisputably saved his life.

“Everyone felt good about the fact that we more than accomplished our goals,” Storch said.

One day, two Walks
Next month, two of the region’s largest AIDS Walk fundraisers take place in Charlotte and Raleigh on the same day, May 3.

In the Queen City, AIDS Walk 2008 will benefit the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN), a non-profit agency that organizes care teams to provide direct assistance to people living with AIDS.
Last year’s record-setting event boasted more than 1,300 walkers and raised around $211,000. Jordan Mitzel, just nine years old last year, was the event’s largest-ever individual fundraiser, securing $5,300 in donations.

Registration for the 12th annual AIDS Walk opens at 8 a.m. at Gateway Village (the site of Pride Charlotte). A half-hour program begins at 9:30 a.m., with the two-mile trek through uptown Charlotte to follow. An awards ceremony recognizing the event’s outstanding individual and team fundraisers gets underway at 11 a.m. to wrap things up.

Nathan Smith, manager of community resources for RAIN, was optimistic in his prognostications when Q-Notes contacted him for comment. “My personal goal is for us to raise $300,000, but a more realistic goal is $250,000 with 1,700 to 2,000 people participating.”

He added, “AIDS Walk has been a key event for RAIN. It is our largest and our signature fundraiser.

Every year we see an increase in donations and more people becoming aware of HIV and AIDS. This event allows us to be in the community to assist clients and to expand our minority outreach programs. It’s a huge part of our existence and our work.”

In Raleigh, Alliance of AIDS Services-Carolina (AASC) is producing the 14th AIDSWALK+RIDE to benefit the agency and 10 more area AIDS service groups, including the AIDS Community Residence Association in Durham and the Carolina HIV/AIDS Legal Assistance Project in Chapel Hill.

The day-long fundraiser kicks off at 7 a.m. at the Halifax Mall with an opening ceremony for cyclists tackling the 30-, 60- or 100-mile bike rides. The registration fee for the Ride is $45 and participants are encouraged to gather at least $200 in donations. The Ride begins promptly at 7:30 a.m.

From 1-4 p.m., walkers check-in at the mall, where the festivities will include live music, free food, face painting and clowns. There is no fee to participate, but walkers are encouraged to raise a minimum of $100 in donations.

The Walk begins at 4 p.m. and participants can choose a one-mile or three-mile route through downtown Raleigh. From 5-5:45 p.m., the closing ceremony takes place with all the riders and walkers completing their courses and returning to Halifax.

“It’s quite dramatic to have the walkers coming back in and riding in between them are 100 cyclists returning from the Ride,” said John Paul Womble, director of development at AASC.

He told Q-Notes that fundraising skyrocketed when the bike ride was added to the walk three years ago. “Money raised from the Walk has gone up 100 percent by adding the Ride. The walks raised about $100,000. With the rides, we’ve raised in and around $200,000 each year.”

That extra money, he said, “really allows the Alliance to provide services that are not covered by federal and state funding. We’re able to maintain our Faith Ministries Program, and offer care and counseling for people in the late stages of the disease, focus on substance abuse prevention and more.”

Additional AIDS Walk fundraisers scheduled for the Carolinas in 2008 include:
Asheville, Oct. 4: Rather than money, participants in the city’s fourth annual AIDS Walk will be asked to bring a non-perishable food or personal care item for donation to Loving Food Resources, a local non-profit that provides food to people living with HIV/AIDS.

Columbia, Pending: Although no details have been finalized, based on past events an October AIDS Walk to benefit Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services (PALSS) might be in the works.
Greensboro, Dec. 7: Winter Walk teams gather donations to benefit Triad Health Project (THP) for this popular annual fundraiser. Last year, 2,500 walkers raised $140,000, making the 2007 iteration of Winter Walk the most successful yet. According to Shane Burton, director of dommunity involvement at THP, the bulk of the participants are students and the percentage of minority students, mainly from N.C. A&T University and Bennett College, is growing.
Greenville, N.C., Dec. 1: This isn’t a fundraiser, but Pitt County AIDS Service Organization (PICASO) will co-host its third annual AIDS Walk on World AIDS Day to raise awareness.

David Stout

David Stout is the associate editor of QNotes. He can be reached at