AIDS Walk Detroit
9 a.m. Sept. 19
Royal Oak Farmers Market
ROYAL OAK – The man who took the first steps toward creating an annual AIDS walk in the Detroit area did not live long enough to see the Steppin’ Out walk blossom into gigantic annual event benefiting 20 different AIDS-related agencies.
Bill Thomas, owner of Pronto! Restaurant in Royal Oak and one of Steppin’ Out’s founders and current board president, recalls how the movement started 20 years ago. “A good friend of mine named Tony Caputo had just moved back to Detroit from New York, where he’d been working with HIV agencies,” Thomas recalls. “There was a lot going on there to raise money and awareness about the AIDS epidemic, but there wasn’t anything like that going on in Detroit.
“(Caputo) went around to business owners and requested that we come up with some sort of a benefit, like a luncheon or an auction or something small like that,” Thomas continues. “Four of us got together – it was Pronto!, Gail’s Chocolates, Lotus Imports and Patti Smith Gallery – and we told him, ‘No, think bigger! Let’s make a day of it!’ And we came up with the idea of an AIDS Walk. It was the first of its kind in Michigan.”
About 300 people came out for that first walk, which raised $1,800 to fight AIDS.
Year by year, AIDS Walk Detroit grew, and now attracts over 5,000 walkers and raises over $300,000 annually that goes directly to local HIV/AIDS organizations. All AIDS Walk Detroit proceeds are directed to Steppin’ Out and granted back to agencies that provide prevention, education and direct-care services to HIV-positive people living in metro Detroit. Agencies that form walk teams with 10 or more walkers receive 97 percent of all pledges collected for walkers on those teams’ behalf.
And though the walk remains successful every year, the peak event, says Thomas, came in 2001 – after it was nearly canceled because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“The tragedy happened on a Tuesday and the walk was scheduled for Sunday,” Thomas explains. “We got a call from the city saying it couldn’t happen because of security issues, but we pushed on and it was a phenomenal event. We had a record turnout and raised a lot more than expected. There was such a good feeling in the crowd. People were embracing the opportunity to come together. It was the biggest expression of human caring – so heartwarming.”
Caputo, however, did not get to see the group’s largest successes. He fell victim to the very disease he worked so hard to prevent, dying from complications due to AIDS in 1994.
Thomas and others pressed on, making the annual event both fun and inspiring throughout the years. Along with the walk, Steppin’ Out has held celebrity shoe auctions to raise money for the cause. In the mid ’90s they convinced Madonna to be their official spokesperson. The hometown diva donated shoes and the sparkly bra worn in her “Girlie Tour.” The bra is still on display in the lobby of Mon Jin Lau in Troy. Actor Mel Gibson and HIV-positive basketball superstar Magic Johnson have also donated footwear to the cause.
The shoe auction eventually evolved into Step Inside the Box. Plain, black shoe boxes are sent to various artists, celebrities, organizations and public figures to be filled, decorated and auctioned off. Last year’s boxes included intricate dioramas, works of art, boxes stuffed with free goodies and, from Pronto!, a box decorated and filled with old-fashioned candies from their corner store.
AIDS Walk Detroit opens each year with a viewing of panels from the large NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Each panel represents someone who has died of AIDS. It’s a sobering reminder of all the many lives who have been and are still touched by the epidemic.
“HIV and AIDS is still a serious problem in our society,” Thomas says. “But we look at AIDS Walk Detroit as a celebration. It brings people together from all walks of life. (AIDS) is really diverse in that it touches every corner of the population in one way or another, but we can fight and we can embrace the day as celebration because we are liberated enough to walk together and say, ‘I care.'”
This year’s walk takes place Sept. 19 and begins at the Royal Oak Farmer’s Market, located in downtown Royal Oak. For more information, or to sign up, visit http://www.aidswalkdetroit.org.