By Sharon Gittleman
When Kathryn Smith, 49, learned her son had AIDS she cried. Then she stepped into action.
Smith, a Farmington Hills resident, has joined forces with AIDS Walk Detroit to help raise thousands of dollars for direct care services for people with HIV and to educate about and prevent others from getting the disease. She’ll be one of hundreds of people walking through the streets of Royal Oak on Sept. 18 during the organization’s annual march – with sponsors money backing each step they take. Walker registration and opening ceremonies for the fund-raiser walk, including the unfurling of the AIDS quilt, will begin at 8 a.m. The walk will start at 10 a.m.
“I became involved with organizations here so I can learn more,” she said.
Smith proudly wears buttons showing her support for other gay-friendly groups, like Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project and the Open Arms Support Group – an organization for people infected and affected by AIDS.
Smith has taken on her new activism with a cheerfulness some would find difficult to maintain.
“It doesn’t do any good to be upset,” she said. “You just have to put a smile on your face and do the best you can to help out.”
Sometimes even Smith finds it hard to remain optimistic.
“I feel irritated because there’s such a stigma,” she said. “People are dying and are afraid to tell their parents.”
Ken Rosen, president of the board of directors for AIDS Walk Detroit, said reductions in funding for organizations battling HIV means the efforts of people like Smith – and the private donations they raise, take on an even greater importance this year.
“We have 450 volunteers and one full-time paid staff member,” he said.
So far, AIDS Walk Detroit has raised $68,000 through corporate sponsorships, he said.
Michigan Congressman Sander Levin has offered his help for several years in the effort to prevent and cure AIDS. Levin spoke to people gathered in Royal Oak last week to hear about this year’s walk.
“There’s been progress fighting AIDS, but the major challenge remains,” said Levin. “There’s a long way to go.”
Limited funding for AIDS research is one of the biggest problems, Levin said.
“I think that the speeches are stronger, but the follow-through remains inadequate,” he said.
Levin said he has met a good number of people with AIDS over the years.
“It was apparent over 20 years ago this was a major challenge. It was life or death,” he said. “That was a call for action.”
This year, organizers say they expect to see over 8,000 walkers and supporters on the streets of Royal Oak on Sept. 18, with $500,000 raised during the event. Since 1991, walk teams, individuals and corporate sponsors have raised $1,744,028 to help people with AIDS and to try to prevent new cases of HIV from occurring. Currently, experts estimate over 16,000 people in southeastern Michigan are living with HIV.
This year, the 15th annual walk will begin at an as yet undisclosed area, because construction projects in Royal Oak have eliminated the customary gathering place used in the past.