by Jessica Carreras
ROYAL OAK –
No matter who was to thank for it – Royal Oak Mayor Jim Ellison, Steppin’ Out volunteers or a higher being – one thing was for sure: the 2009 AIDS Walk Detroit couldn’t have happened on a better day.
“Nineteen years of perfect weather for this event,” boasted Steppin’ Out Board President Bill Thomas, addressing the crowd at the Sept. 20 event, held at the Royal Oak Farmers Market. “I just don’t know who to thank: all of you and a higher being. It’s a wonderful thing.”
But not quite as wonderful as the $175,000 (and counting) raised for HIV/AIDS services in the state by this year’s walk, including a slew of corporate sponsors ranging from national companies like Comerica Bank and See Eyewear to locals like Pronto Restaurant or lawyer and Royal Oak City Commission candidate Jim Rasor.
“Without corporate sponsorship, we couldn’t put this event on,” Thomas added. “This was a tough year for raising money and I want to thank all of you for participating.” He noted, however, that this year marked the highest level of sponsorship in the past five years of AIDS Walk Detroit, and that Steppin’ Out expects to exceed last year’s funds raised – around $200,000 – by the time all the donations are counted.
Sunday’s event featured many of staples of the two-decade old walk, including the opening of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and a notorious feud between a cat and dog.
Though total amounts are still not in, it appears that Beau the Wonderdog, owned by Affirmations CEO Leslie Thompson, beat out Michigan AIDS Coalition COO and Ferndale Mayor Craig Covey’s Siamese cat Gizmo. As of press time, Gizmo – who arrived at the walk in a golden cage carried by four MAC staffers – came in at $1,300 to Beau’s just over $2,000. “Last year, he raised $1,900 so his fundraising prowess has declined a little bit,” Covey joked of his furry fundraiser. “But he still has another 30 days, so he’s going to try to be like the tortoise and the hare and leap further ahead in the future.”
The dog came in as the event’s fifth highest fundraiser.
But only human members of the Extra Mile Club were recognized on Sunday for raising $1,000 or more for Steppin’ Out. Twenty walkers made the cut for a total of $46,500. “Everyone that’s standing behind me really has put a big effort into raising money,” Thomas said as the 20 EMC walkers were honored on stage.
David Agius came in as the event’s highest fundraiser again, with over $11,000 in donations under his name.
Aside from raising funds, political issues were high on the minds of walkers, too. Several politicos made appearances at the event, including Sen. Carl Levin and Rep. Gary Peters, both longtime supporters of the LGBT and HIV/AIDS communities.
Both men spoke of the need to renew the Ryan White Act, which provides much-needed funds to HIV/AIDS services across the country. The act, named after a teenaged boy who died from AIDS-related causes, is set to expire Sept. 30 unless Congress passes an extension of it within the next week or so.
Sen. Levin was extremely vocal about the subject, and assured that he would do what it took to take care of those with HIV/AIDS. “This is the 19th straight year that we’ve been raising money to defeat AIDS and HIV. We’re going to do it one of these years,” he told the crowd of walkers. “We have a bill on the floor of the senate to continue our AIDS program. The funding will run out by the end of this month … so Debbie Stabenow and I, Gary Peters and everybody – my brother Sandy Levin – we’re going back to Washington tomorrow and we’re going to renew that act.”
Rep. Peters echoed his sentiments, and urged the crowd to let their voices be heard in support of the act. “You can’t assume that it’s going to pass,” he warned. “We need to have your activism. Make those calls to your members of Congress to make sure we support that act.”
For some, however, the 2009 AIDS Walk Detroit was not about politics or money. Instead, for many, the walk is a simple wish to honor those they have lost. “I have a friend whose daughter died from AIDS, and a grandson and a colleague,” recounted Royal Oak resident Mary Mills. “I think Tim – my colleague – died in 1994 and I’ve been doing the walk since then.”
And even though Mills said she thinks she didn’t raise more than $75 or so, her heart was in the walk. Talking about her loss, tears came to her eyes. “I don’t know why after all this time, it still does this to me,” Mills said of her emotional response to the AIDS walk. “But it still does.”
Luckily for Mills, she was very much not alone.