In 1991, I attended my first World AIDS Day event here in Little Rock. We attempted to hold hands around the State Capitol dome. On that very cold, early December night, we barely had enough people to stretch across the front of the building.
I had come down to honor my friend, Trey. He was supposed to come out that night, but he had just recently taken a turn for the worse and was spending his last few days on earth making arrangements to come home from St. Vincent Infirmary so that he could die at home with his parents and his partner.
Times were different 20 years ago. Most of us were not out of the closet at home, let alone at work. AIDS was ravaging the male gay community, so that we were losing friends on what seemed like a daily basis. Our mourning was done in private. On a seemingly daily basis, letters to the editor in the Arkansas Democrat called AIDS our deserved punishment from God.
On that cold night in 1991, the only church leaders to attend our vigil were one rabbi and a minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock. Today, many churches and civic groups are openly welcoming to the LGBT community and many more of us are out of the closet to the world. AIDS is no longer considered just the "Gay Disease."
In fact, according to David Tucker, president of the Arkansas AIDS Foundation, some of the most at-risk groups for HIV/AIDS today are youth of all sexual orientations, ages 13-24; heterosexual women of color, and heterosexuals older than 50.
The year after my first World AIDS Day event, the Arkansas AIDS Foundation was formed to improve the quality of life for people living with HIV and AIDS in Arkansas. Saturday, Nov. 10, will mark the 10th annual Arkansas AIDS Foundation Walk, which is one of the organization's primary fundraising and public awareness events.
The Arkansas AIDS Foundation has a "proven track record" in serving people no matter their socioeconomic status, race or culture, Tucker said. The money raised at the AIDS Walk will go to assist clients in the foundation's Medical Assistance Program Services component.
This year, the AAF is expanding its services with the Client Assisted Nutritional Services, or CANS, program, providing food vouchers and toiletry and personal hygiene items to clients.
Tucker said the AAF is at the forefront in conducting innovative programs for people with AIDS. The foundation provides services to hundreds of clients in Pulaski, Lonoke and Prairie counties, and its district makes up 35 percent of all diagnosed HIV cases and 35 percent of all AIDS cases in Arkansas. The foundation works with all major hospitals, other HIV/AIDS service organizations and all social service organizations involved in HIV/AIDS-related activities to provide services.
This year's AAF walk is billed as "A Celebration of Life." The event starts at 10 a.m. Saturday at pavilions 7 and 8 at Murray Park. Registration starts at 10 a.m. and the walk will begin at noon. You can pre-register as an individual walker or as a team by calling (501) 376-6299 or at arktimes.com/aidswalk. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for donation forms, flyers, team instructions or more information. The registration fee ($25 or $15 for students) includes a T-shirt, entertainment and lunch. Awards will be given away to the teams with the most walkers, the most money raised and the best overall banner. This year AAF is also asking participants to donate some toiletry or personal hygiene products to be distributed to their clients through the CANS Program.
Kicking off the 2012 AIDS Walk is Wine and Cheese Night, Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Historic Rogers House (400 W. 18th St. in Little Rock). Admission is $20 and along with an array of wines and cheeses, there will be a silent auction.