Public events built around efforts to make a difference in the lives of people with chronic illnesses are as much about raising money as they are about getting people there to take part in the day. Whether it’s for breast cancer, lupus, multiple sclerosis or any type of disease, it does a world of good for people living with the disease, as it does their families and friends, to see a large turnout of people who care about them.
Such is the case with the upcoming South Sound AIDS Walk on Sept. 21 at Cheney Stadium. The goal this year is to raise $100,000 for the Pierce County AIDS Foundation’s (PCAF) prevention and case management in Pierce, Thurston and Lewis counties. There is another goal as well – to raise the hopes and spirits of the HIV positive people and people with AIDS who will be walking with everyone else. Seeing so much community support helps lessen the blows of negativity and judgments that people with HIV/AIDS still must endure, as they have been since the beginning of the AIDS crisis back in the early 1980s.
“On the day of the AIDS Walk, when I look back on that day and assess if it was a successful day, it really has a lot more to do with who’s there and the spirit and the dedication that you see in the community,” said PCAF Executive Director Duane Wilkerson. “People showing up says a lot about supporting those living with this disease. There will be a lot of people there with HIV or AIDS and what they get from that really can’t be quantified.”
Even though more than 30 years have passed since AIDS became a national health crisis, people living with the disease still face barriers of insensitivity and prejudice. Wilkerson plans to touch on this in his address to all the AIDS walkers on the 21st. “HIV/AIDS is a disease that flourishes when ignorance, fear and apathy thrive. It is what I call the H.A.R.P. dilemma: homophobia, apathy, racism and poverty.” These serve only to undo the work being done at PCAF and to prevent people from getting tested for HIV and seeking help in managing the disease.
“We still have clients who don’t want anyone to know they come to the ‘AIDS building,’ which is why we don’t have our name on the building,” Wilkerson said. “Those challenges are still there.
“One of the main points of the AIDS Walk each year is … to address the stigma and discrimination. It says, ‘we’re here with you, we stand with you, that you’re worthy of our time, our love, our care and our support.’”
Wilkerson said he wants to reach out to the LGBT community in particular this year. Even though there have been local and national wins for this community that PCAF has helped nurture and celebrate such as marriage equality and, here in Pierce County, the opening of the new Rainbow Center/Oasis (ORC) headquarters on Pacific Avenue – HIV remains a critical issue for the LGBT population. In the past 10 years, more than 60 percent of all new HIV diagnoses nationally have been among gay and bisexual men, yet they represent 2 percent of the overall U.S. population. “They’re a very small percentage of our total population but they still represent the majority of infections,” Wilkerson said. “That’s true in our county and that’s true in our state. I don’t want the community to forget that. Part of (PCAF’s) job is to lift that up, and that’s part of what the AIDS Walk does.”
Gay and bisexual men of color, predominantly African-American and Latino, are at even more risk, as are women of color. “Nationally, state-wide and locally, over two-thirds of women infected with HIV are African-American,” according to Wilkerson.
Then there’s the false sense of security based on advances in pharmaceutical treatments. “There’s just such a feeling that we’ve got a handle on it because there are a lot of articles in the news these days about all the wonderfulness of the new drugs – and there are people who can tolerate the side effects and who can afford them – but we still have 55,000 new infections every year nationally and that’s just way too much,” Wilkerson said. “It’s still no fun to live with this disease, even if the drugs help you.”
Between their young clientele newly diagnosed with HIV and those who are aging with the disease, PCAF will put to use every penny received from the Walk. To learn more about the event and to register, visit http://www.piercecountyaids.org.