By Cathy Markes
ROYAL OAK – A record number of participants and sponsors brought their optimism and hopes to last Sunday’s 17th annual AIDS Walk in Royal Oak. While the final tally of money raised won’t be known for a while, Steppin’ Out, the event producer, is confident of beating its goal to raise $300,000 for the local HIV/AIDS community.
The staging areas and sponsors aisle were festooned with red and white balloon bundles. Music played over the crowd and as background for DJ Michele Taylor of radio station 95.5 FM. Sharing the primary stage with her was Steppin’ Out president Kim Tabor, who kept the day’s events moving forward.
“A lot of people have been very generous to us this year. LaSalle Bank donated $10,000 – and then asked us late last week if we needed anything. That’s remarkable,” she said. “The City of Royal Oak has been very accommodating with adjusting traffic and such for our participants. Pepsi offered us some of their commercial radio air-time to promote Steppin’ Out and the walk.”
Part of The AIDS quilt, which recently has been designated a national treasure by Congress, was unfurled in the market parking lot prior to the start of the walk. Surrounded by a white picket fence and rows of mums, the hand-stitched pieces were moving remembrances of friends and family lost to AIDS. Each portion is a visual representation of how those left behind remember their loved one.
“I didn’t know I was gonna cry, again,” confessed an on-looking participant from Ferndale.
This day marked the very first time that the Michigan quilt had been presented in its full format at one time. This requires eight volunteers per quilt, meaning 160 volunteers gently handling the quilt. It is a portion of the national quilt that has been designated as the world’s largest arts and crafts project.
Charlotte Paul, executive director of Steppin’ Out, describes the quilt as a moving display.
“This quilt represents the lives of those who were not fortunate enough to win their battle with AIDS,” she said. “We must keep vigilant. We need to insist on education that promotes prevention.”
Part of Paul’s confidence regarding Steppin’ Out’s financial goal is due to its strong online presence this year.
“Walkers and team leaders included our Web site in their communications,” she added. “The youth element was especially strong this year. People seemed to like contributing online, so, we were able to collect their donations earlier.
“This way, we have a better idea than ever about where we stand financially.”
Steppin’ Out founding member Bill Thomas, who currently serves on the board, said the event’s history began as a request by one person for a single day of recognition by Royal Oak merchants.
“Tony Caputo asked me and other Royal Oak business owners if we could set aside one day to collect funds for AIDS,” Thomas explained. “His idea of one day turned into the AIDS Walk that we know today. It is the single largest fundraiser for AIDS in Michigan. And, as a matter of fact, the walks that began for AIDS started the whole idea of walking for a cause.”
This year, the winners of the 5K race were Bill Mader of Rochester in the men’s competition, while Lindsay Healy of Troy took the women’s competition. Closing ceremonies were attended by a raucous group, heady from their walking and bonding experience.
Walk leaders, organizers, runners and walkers gathered to hear the day’s grand tally and a few words of thanks. Bill Thomas teased the crowd for a bit before announcing the total $250,000 in the form of an oversized check.
Mayor Jim Ellison of Royal Oak, announced, “The mums you see placed around you will be planted throughout the city as a reminder of our ongoing fight with AIDS.”
The city’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin added, “Thank you for walking for justice. I don’t know what Republicans in Lansing and D.C. are thinking.”
Bill Campbell listening in the audience remarked, “All this budget-cutting of health care services – especially HIV/AIDS – is going to backfire socially. I’ve got news for them: Republicans get AIDS, rich people get AIDS, and we’re all susceptible. We’re past ‘get a clue.'”
Sandy Miller of Royal Oak lost an uncle to AIDS in 1990. She created a personal memorial to him that includes newspaper clipping and reviews of his work as a costume designer for stage. His designs still are in use in New York.
“Bringing it here reminds me that we’ve all lost so much,” she said.
As the diverse crowd lunched on donated Little Caesars pizza, Starbucks coffee, Trader Joe’s bananas and Whole Foods Market oranges, all seemed pleased with the results of their efforts. They gently bumped each other in the arm, challenging one another to raise more donations next year – and writing down the contact information of new friends.
And many did pledge to return for another AIDS Walk.
“Yeah, I’d walk again. I hope that a cure can be found in my lifetime,” said Aaron Goss, 17.
The high school that brought in the most donations will win a dance party provided by 95.5 FM; but those results were tied at the time of the walk. The winner will be announced in October.
Looking around at what it would take to clean things up, Tabor thought out loud.
“While this was about money, it was more about awareness,” she said. “I hope that came across.”