The sun was hot, the ocean breeze was cool, the excitement in the air was palpable.

The Florida AIDS Walk & Music Festival felt like its old self on March 19. Thousands turned out to Fort Lauderdale Beach to raise money for AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) and had a good time doing it.

“The energy was flawless,” Main Stage emcee Kitty Meow said.

Along with DJ Alex Ferbeyre, she helped get the crowd pumped up as they checked in and warmed up. Right at 10 a.m. teams stepped off on the 5K route in and around Fort Lauderdale Beach.

By the time everyone arrived back, the walk had raised $1.9 million, blowing past its goal of $1.5 million. Donations and corporate sponsorships may still come in for a few more weeks, meaning the total could break $2,000,000 by the time it’s all counted.

“The AIDS Walk is the largest fundraiser of its kind in our state,” Zachary Durand, Community Outreach Director for Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said. “At a time when the LGBTQ community and other minority group rights are being restricted in the legislature, it’s important that everyone continue to show up in droves. Not just to make a statement that we’re united as individuals and human beings, but also to bring awareness to an epidemic that has affected people all over the world.”

Many groups that will benefit from funds raised had booths to educate walkers in a great atmosphere.

“I got here at 6:30 this morning and I’m like ‘I love my office!’”

Karen Costello-Wilder was there representing Aqua Foundation for Women, for whom she serves as Board Chair. She said Aqua’s work is important because women are underserved when it comes to HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

“We offer a scholarship program at Aqua. Currently one of our scholars is getting her masters in entomology, and we’re discussing putting together a program for women with HIV and Trans with HIV. Having panels there, a testing site, and start talking about it more.”

“We do this kind of work. It’s nice to see people recognize the work,” said Ogui Vila from Latinos Salud. “It’s also important to have gay Latino representation in the Miami area.”

Once the walk was finished, the party kicked into high gear. LGBT icons Deborah Cox and Jessie J each took the stage to perform hits and really play to the crowd.

“Deborah Cox is someone whom I love and I worship the ground she walks on,” Kitty Meow said. “I had been watching her show off her acting chops on the BET series First Wives Club. Jessie J was amazing, what a voice. She was so kind, so down-to-Earth and so sweet.”

There was one technical glitch when Jessie J took the stage. After a rousing musical intro, she had an audio problem and had to stop. After a minute the problem was fixed, she joked that “Everyone is fired!” and continued with her set.

Both Cox and J interacted with an adoring crowd.

“Amazing. Both girls blew my mind,” said Joshua Seaton, a bartender at The Pub.

The Pub, LIT Bar, and Gym Bar formed one big team to show support for the cause.

Last year, pandemic health protocols worked to keep everyone socially distanced. This year everyone could mix and mingle and party, a great return to the good old days.

“I felt like we were finally getting back to some level of normalcy post-pandemic. This is my third year hosting the Florida Aids Walk & Music Festival. This by far is certainly the largest audience I have ever seen in attendance for the event,” Kitty Meow said.

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