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ROYAL OAK – The 25th annual AIDS Walk Detroit took place Sunday. Organizers estimated over 1,000 people were in attendance and anticipate they will have raised more than $160,000 by the time they’ve finished accepting donations next month. These, however, are not the numbers that AIDS Walk Detroit was hoping for. On their website, organizers announced they had “ambitiously” set a goal of raising $225,000 and seeing more than 3,500 folks participate. While organizers were undoubtedly disappointed with the numbers, so, too, were many of the walkers.
“I wish it was a little bit larger,” said David Agius, who walked this year for the 20th time. “In the beginning it was a little bit more than it is now. But it’s not in the newspaper anymore. People think it’s gone, but it really isn’t gone.”
Not by a longshot. The walk’s emcee, Dr. Partha Nandi, gave out some staggering statistics just before the walk began.
“You know that commercial, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby?'” Nandi asked the crowd. “Absolutely, we have. But there’s a lot of work to be done. (An estimated) 37 million people are living with HIV disease today. In 2014, 2 million people around the world were newly infected with HIV … as we do this walk, 230 people per hour get infected with HIV, 5,600 people every single day.”
Mary Liz Curtin of lifestyle store Leon & Lulu not only walked but was also a sponsor. She, too, noticed a decline in attendance.
“I think people are forgetting it,” she said. “It breaks my heart that the younger people think that it’s just something you can just take a little cocktail for and they think it’s a cocktail in a drink with an umbrella; I happen to know it’s a little more complicated than that. So it makes me sad to see the young kids getting infected, and now there’s a whole new group of older HIV positive people dealing with age related diseases that no one ever thought they’d get. So it’s fabulous that they’re old enough to get diabetes, but it’s a whole other set of complications.”
Committed for Christ sang two inspirational songs before the start of the walk, Dr. Partha Nandy served as the emcee.
Dr. Richard Cooke, a primary care physician for HIV-positive patients and an AIDS Walk Detroit board member, agreed.
“Today I treat patients with HIV and they’re living to the point where I get to treat diabetes and hypertension and all the diseases that people today are fortunate enough to be able to have,” said Cooke. “Because for so many years we lost kids who were 20, 25, 30 years old, and they never lived long enough to reach a ripe old age and have grandkids. Now, I get to do annual well visits. And today the kids that unfortunately still get it, I can talk to them and explain to them that we’re fortunate to be able to treat it like any other chronic disease. But understanding that you have to take special care of yourself but you can still live a full, long life.”
Jay Kaplan, who has participated in AIDS Walk Detroit every year since it began in 1991, was witness to a time when HIV was much more than merely a chronic illness.
“I just remember that it was a very different time,” Kaplan said. “For so many people this was still a death sentence. People were dying. I did HIV/AIDS law. I used to do wills for people and power of attorney and help them get social security benefits and usually they would pass away. So I just remember all these wonderful people who are gone.
“I lost a lot of people who were very close to me and people that I knew,” Kaplan continued. “It’s still a very important thing. Even though it’s a chronic illness, people still get infected. We need to have services, treatment and education available to people. ”
The lifestyle store Leon & Lulu once again provided the ‘cash car’ for the walk. The store pledged to match all donations dropped off at the car.
Walker Frank D’Amore echoed Kaplan’s sentiments.
“There’s no cure for AIDS yet,” said D’Amore. “People are still affected by and infected with it. Agencies are having their funding cut. So if I can help raise funds, that’s what I’m going to do.”
And that’s what AIDS Walk Detroit continues to do, even in a changing climate. To date, the walk has raised $3.8 million to benefit HIV/AIDS services here in Michigan in its 25 year history. The numbers may be down, but organizers are still understandably pleased with their efforts.
“It was a wonderful day bringing together over a thousand people to honor the lives of those we’ve lost to HIV/AIDS, celebrate those who are living with the virus today and support work in HIV prevention and care across Metro Detroit,” said AIDS Walk Detroit board member Teresa Roscoe in a statement. “We want to thank the walkers, volunteers and sponsors who helped make the event possible as we work towards an end to HIV.”