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.

As in the past several years, this year’s slew of events across the state will play an important role in raising both much-needed funding and awareness for AIDS services organizations and the crucial role they play in the health and well-being of their communities. But, 2011 also holds other important and symbolic meanings marking the 30th anniversary of the AIDS Crisis. On June 5. 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on the first cases of what would eventually be named Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. From five, sick young men in Los Angeles, the Crisis grew. A lack of government response in the face of thousands of deaths nationwide sparked action.


Short walks, long histories

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.


Trying times

Last year, North Carolina’s community of HIV/AIDS patients were hit with devastating blows. As the state legislature faced looming budget deficits, officials with the N.C. Department of Health’s HIV/STD Prevention and Care Branch announced enrollment in the state’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) would be capped at current levels. Though low-income HIV/AIDS patients who were already enrolled would continue to receive medicines, hundreds were put on a waiting list that eventually became the longest in the nation.

Leaders like the Rev. Debbie Warren of Charlotte’s Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN), Addison Ore of Greensboro’s Triad Health Project and John Paul Womble of Raleigh’s Alliance of AIDS Services-Carolina sprang into action. With the advocacy of state AIDS and STD director Jacquelyn Clymore, North Carolina eventually passed a budget that included restored funds for the program, though eligibility levels were reduced.

Walks across Carolina

May 7 • Charlotte
AIDS Walk Charlotte

One of the largest AIDS fundraisers across the Carolinas, AIDS Walk Charlotte raises funds for the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network. To register walk teams or learn more, visit aidswalkcharlotte.org.

May 21 • Raleigh
AIDS Walk+Ride

Alliance of AIDS Services-Carolina hosts their annual walk and bicycle ride in downtown Raleigh. Register walkers, learn more about the ride and more at aidswalkandride.org.

December • Greensboro
Winter Walk for AIDS
Triad Health Project takes to the streets of downtown Greensboro’s Aycock Neighborhood. For more information, visit traidhealthproject.com.

For more events see our Q Events Calendar.

Ore says the funding crisis that AIDS service providers and patients faced last year is still taking its toll, though potential future cuts could be worse.

“It’s all up for debate,” she says. “There are no sacred cows anymore.”

State legislators usually deal with budgetary matters in their biennial short session. That’s when last year’s ADAP funding was restored and passed. But this year, the state faces a $2.7 billion deficit — down $1 billion when the legislature opened this year’s session in January. That’s spawned efforts to cut spending and some legislators have put AIDS funding on the chopping block.

In January, state Rep. Larry Brown, a Republican who represents portions of eastern Forsyth County, told The Winston-Salem Journal that state government shouldn’t be funding HIV/AIDS treatment for those who “caused it by the way they live.”

“I’m not opposed to helping a child born with HIV or something,” Brown told the paper, “but I don’t condone spending taxpayers’ money to help people living in perverted lifestyles.”

Brown’s remarks on HIV/AIDS funding were quickly condemned by statewide advocates.

“These comments are completely unacceptable,” Ian Palmquist, Equality North Carolina’s executive director, said in a release at the time. “Larry Brown is out of touch with the people of North Carolina, who strongly support programs to care for the most vulnerable among us, and he’s out of step with his own party.”

Brown had previously caused controversy after calling gays “queers” and “fruitloops” in an email to his Republican colleagues.

Such a hostile social agenda concerns Ore, who is cautious after last November’s change in legislative leadership.

“I certainly don’t believe someone like Rep. Larry Brown speaks for the entire Republican leadership, but I think when someone speaks like that it’s indicative of a feeling. That’s very concerning to me.”

Ore’s organization relies on a mix of support from federal, state and local funding.

“We rely more and more on what we are able to raise ourselves,” Ore says, noting decreases in federal grants and flat-lined local funding. “Individual donations have remained fairly stable, but we have to keep going back to the well more often. We’re starting to battle donor fatigue.”


Messages of hope, strains of advocacy

Nathan Smith, RAIN’s director of development and marketing, says his organization has also felt the brunt of meager times.

“We’ve felt it like any other non-profit,” he says, noting his group had to layoff some workers when the economy initially nose-dived in Charlotte a few years ago.

But Smith is quick to point out that financial hardships are standing in stark contrast to the good that often comes out of fundraisers like RAIN’s upcoming AIDS Walk Charlotte on May 7.

AIDS Walk Charlotte is RAIN’s largest fundraiser each year. It’s also one of the group’s largest public advocacy and awareness-building tools.

“We truly push and want people to understand [this issue],” he says. “That’s why we have no registration fee and we encourage middle and high school and college students who can’t raise money to come out and support us. It’s about showing the community that this is still an issue for us.”

Ore’s Triad Health Project holds their Winter Walk for AIDS each December. Ore says she’s always very intentional about stressing awareness along with fundraising.

“That’s often when we’ll get a call from local people,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to get the word out in front of people.”

Triad Health Project is also celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, an occasion that has garnered the group more local press and attention to the important issues that’s kept them running.

RAIN’s AIDS Walk Charlotte celebrates 15 years in May. Like Triad Health Project, RAIN has felt the pinch but feels events like their Walk help to close the gaps and create opportunities for change.

At the end of the day, Smith says RAIN isn’t going anywhere.

“We’ve been here for 19 years, and we’re going to be here until the Crisis is over,” he says. : :

— David Stout contributed to this report.

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.