By Jim Larkin
HIV positive Flint man to participate in his 20th walk to raise needed funds
FLINT – Lamarr Mitchell will be walking in the Sept. 27 Flint AIDS Walk for pretty much the same reasons he’s been walking in every one since the inaugural event in 1988.
He’ll walk in memory of all of those, including his friends, who have died of the disease and the 680 Genesee County residents who have HIV/AIDS today. He’ll walk to raise awareness. And he’ll walk because the 49-year-old Flint schoolteacher knows well the ever-extending reach of AIDS – he’s been living with it for more than 10 years.
“I walked in the very first one and I continue to walk due to others who have passed on,” Mitchell said. “They set the stage for where I’m at right now.”
Indeed, many of those who walk the 3-mile course through downtown Flint streets do so in memory of someone who has died of AIDS, said Stevi Atkins, HIV prevention program coordinator for WellnessAIDS Services in Flint. Many walk as families, some walk alone, and others merely send in donations. But they all have a message to send, Atkins said.
“They want to say ‘We’ll never forget you and we’ll continue to fight for you,'” Atkins said.
Sending that message is particularly important this year because of the poor economy and the resulting huge drop in corporate donations, Atkins said. Last year’s event drew 410 walkers and $22,000 — a drop in the bucket compared to the 5,000 walkers at breast cancer walks and the hundreds of thousands they raise, but a record for Flint nonetheless.
But that mark won’t come close to being matched unless individuals take up the slack by gathering pledges and walking. They can do so by calling WellnessAIDS Services at (810) 232-0888.
Money from the walk goes toward providing services not covered by grants, such as supplies and medicines that those with HIV/AIDS can’t get covered through insurances or other health organizations. Atkins said WelnessAIDS Services requires clients to get three denials from other community resources before providing funding for individuals.
“We’re the fund of last resort,” she noted.
And that need continues to rise. Atkins said the number of Genesee County residents with HIV/AIDS has gradually gone up through the years, with the biggest jump being last year due to new requirements in reporting the disease. Still, the old fallacies about the disease continue.
“I think people still perceive HIV as a gay disease, when it’s behavior that transmits it,” Atkins said. “We’re beginning to see more and more women with it and have had to cater our services and open up our programs to women.”
That’s why when asked about his sexual orientation, Mitchell doesn’t provide a definitive answer. He doesn’t want to foster common misperceptions about AIDS.
“I’m just me and I’ve been me since Day 1,” Mitchell said.
“It’s all about taking the virus and making it a positive thing rather than a negative,” he adds.
So instead of brooding when he discovered he was HIV positive, Mitchell stepped up his activism. He started HIV/AIDS support groups and support groups for teens that were coming out of the closet. He spoke for a number of agencies about the disease and fought his firing from a previous job and then worked for five more years for that company instead of merely taking what it dished out.
And when he heard comments in his own church from “close-minded” members, he left the church, saying “I don’t need a church building to have a relationship with God. My faith in God is what has gotten me through this.
“It was a bumpy road at first,” he admitted, “because of the ignorance of others and the stigma attached to it.”
That road became extremely bumpy about five years ago, when Mitchell developed pneumonia twice He was, he noted, “supposed to be dying” but he rallied, he said, because of his deep faith. Today the virus is undetectable and he went off all medications about two months ago, he said.
Now he tries to talk to as many people as possible about the importance of walking in this month’s AIDS Walk.
“A lot of people have told me, ‘you can’t walk in that. You’re going to be labeled.’ But I’ve told them it’s very important to walk,” Mitchell said “I’m an advocate. I give me life to it.”
And Atkins adds that it’s not just about the disease itself. It’s also a reflection on the community.
“When people walk they’re showing that this community does care,” Atkins said. “They’re saying, ‘we do want to see this disease eliminated from our community.”
ABOUT THE WALK
* WHAT: Flint AIDS Walk is part of Michigan AIDS Walk (see other city schedules below)
* WHEN: Sept. 27, registration starting at noon, walk after 2 p.m. opening ceremonies
* WHERE: University of Michigan-Flint Pavilion on Saginaw Street in downtown Flint
* WHERE TO CALL: For more information or for a registration packet, call 810-232-0888.
The prevalence of HIV/AIDS per 100,000 population in Michigan counties, according to statistics from the Michigan Department of Community Health in 2006, the most recent year available:
* Detroit: 702.2
* Kent County: 179.3
* Ingham County: 179.0
* Washtenaw County: 170.3
* Berrien County: 166.2
* Kalamazoo County: 146.7
* Oakland County: 144.0
* Genesee County: 142.2
The mode of transmitting HIV/AIDS for the Michigan residents with HIV/AIDS as of 2006, the most recent year the Michigan Department of Community Health had such statistics:
* Men who have sex with men: 47 percent
* Presumed Heterosexual: 14 percent
* Injecting drug users: 14 percent
* Heterosexual: 13 percent
* Men who have sex with men and inject drugs: 5 percent
* Unknown: 5 percent
* Blood recipient: 1 percent
* Perinatal: 1 percent