For 3.3 miles every year, the community comes together in the name of defeating HIV/AIDS.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s eighth annual Florida AIDS Walk and Music Festival, scheduled for March 24, has exploded over the years, reigning in $3 million since its inception. The $25 registration fee allows one to take part in the walk and also experience a day filled with music, food and other entertainment.
“It’s for a great value and it’s for a great cause,” said Mark Martin, the regional director of community relations and development for AHF. “It’s really important to really underscore that we are still in a full-blown AIDS crisis.”
Getting its start as the Fort Lauderdale AIDS Walk, this year’s festival lineup includes local band Tony Cruz and the Band opening for Grammy Award winner and festival headliner, Chaka Khan. The host for the show is Sheryl Lee Ralph, known for her roles in Dream Girls, Moesha and more recently in Smash. Also, she runs her own HIV nonprofit, DIVA.
“The more we talk about it, the more conversations we have about it with our partners, our family, our doctors, our politicians,” said Jason King, who has participated in the walk for the last three years. Putting such matters on the table, he added, helps make it a normative issue, as opposed to what it may be now. “The more we stigmatize the disease, the more ammunition we give it.”
King, who also serves as the legal affairs manager for AHF, was diagnosed with HIV at 19.
“I just didn’t realize the risk,” he said about his college years. “I didn’t know anyone personally that had it who could be an example to me.”
Today, King is open about his HIV status to educate others and promote an open dialogue. It was the support of his family and former partner that helped him gain the confidence to be so candid about living with HIV.
According to the Florida Department of Health, Florida has the third highest number of AIDS patients in the country and comes in second for new cases. For new HIV cases, Florida comes in first with the majority of cases being in South Florida.
For Martin, his experience with HIV/AIDS began in high school when he saw gay men on television dying of what was then called GRID. Doctors wouldn’t even touch their patients. Then, it hit home when his best friend Tim found out he was HIV positive. He had been the one to move to Fort Lauderdale and drew a whole group of friends from their home in Texas.
Martin watched him slowly deteriorate through depression, fear and being unable to pay for treatment. When the first AIDS Walk came into play, Martin and his Texas friends joined immediately.
“We didn’t want anyone else in the world to suffer how Tim suffered physically and emotionally, to feel so alone in fighting the disease,” he said. “He always felt like he was kind of invisible. He always wanted to kind of make a difference and matter in the world. He changed all of our lives and mattered in some of the biggest ways possible.”
Each year, a beneficiary is chosen to keep all the earnings from the walk, as well as a to get a financial gift. Also, AHF’s mobile testing unit benefits. Available throughout South Florida, the unit also travels throughout Florida for safe, confidential and fast testing. Results are available a minute after the test, and those who test positive are immediately provided with access to resources right there – even if they don’t have insurance.“I would bet $100 that do know somebody with the diseases,” Martin said. “It’s not a segmenting disease. It doesn’t just affect one group of people. You’ll be helping your neighbor, you’ll be helping your community and you might not even know it.”
Visit FloridaAIDSWalk.com to register for the walk or donate to the cause.