By Megan Wadding, October 2017 Issue.

This year marks a decade of fundraising for AIDS Walk Arizona, which benefits Aunt Rita’s Foundation and its 16 partners agencies.

Each year, the event continues to grow and evolve, and event organizers anticipate between 3,000 to 5,000 participants will descend on the streets of downtown Phoenix Oct. 22.

“It is sure to be a great weekend of community and [a] celebration of our accomplishments as both a community and with the advancement of HIV treatment over the past 10 years,” said Jonathan Brier, director of marketing and events for Aunt Rita’s. “[It] is going to be awesome!”

According to Brier, last year’s increase in youth and student participants was especially encouraging and something he hopes to see repeated.

“[It] was spectacular,” Brier said. “Most new infections are in people under the age of 30, so to see more young people at the walk is very encouraging.”

What To Know Before You Go

This year, AIDS Walk Arizona organizers are switching up the event format. The most significant change participants will notice is that the awards presentations, annual recognition and other stage activities will take place before the walk, rather than after as before.

“No more waiting around after the walk to get your award this year,” Brier said. “When walkers come back in, there will be entertainment on the main stage, our food vendors will be ready to serve up some great bites and the vendor village will be open for participants to learn about the different organizations we support and … about the sponsors of the walk.”

Additionally, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, will address participants from the main stage prior to the walk.

“To have such support from our local government is cause for celebration,” Brier said. “We have so much to be grateful for with the advances in treatment and that we live in a city that cares so much about ending HIV.”

The main stage, one of six stages at the event, will be hosted by walk co-chairs, TV personalities Kim Covington and J.R. Cardenas, who are also community activists committed to raising awareness around HIV and related causes. There will also be a DJ for part of the morning and some live entertainment too.

The Race to Rainbows

Another change participants should be aware of is that this year’s event will kick off an hour later to accommodate those attending Phoenix Pride’s Rainbows Festival, which starts the previous evening and goes on all weekend at Heritage Square in Phoenix.

“Everyone can sleep in an extra hour, especially since everyone is going to have a great day at Rainbows Festival the day before the walk,” Brier said. “Everyone can come well-rested, get their walk on and then continue their day back at Rainbows Festival.”

Phoenix Pride and Rainbows Festival are sponsors of AIDS Walk Arizona, just as the Aunt Rita’s Foundation is a sponsor of the Rainbows Festival, Brier explained, adding that attendees of both events have shared that they love it when both fall on the same weekend

“I’ve [spoken to] many people who are going to ‘staycation’ in downtown Phoenix for the weekend so they don’t miss any of the fun between our two events,” he said. “Walkers love being able to finish the walk, grab something yummy to eat from our food trucks and then head right on over to Rainbows to continue the celebrations.”

Walking Toward the Goal

However, until we effectively eliminate HIV in Arizona, Brier said, AIDS Walk events will be necessary for raising both awareness and money to support programs that prevent new transmissions and to help support those living with HIV.

“Once we have met [our] goals, we will walk in remembrance of those we have lost to this disease. I like to think that we [can] walk in celebration, too,” he said.

AIDS Walk Arizona annually raises an estimated $270,000, according to Brier, adding that this year’s goal is to raise $300,000.

“I would be so happy to reach or exceed that number,” Brier said. “Monies raised at AIDS Walk go directly to [Aunt Rita’s] 16 partner agencies that provide critical HIV prevention programs and treatment services for those living with HIV in the greater Phoenix area.”

Fighting Misconceptions

According to Brier, stigma is the biggest modern-day battle concerning HIV. However, he believes that event participants who choose to self-identify as HIV positive (by the wearing red fighter-themed shirts offered at registration) are helping to reduce the stigma around HIV.

“People still don’t want to talk about it. We live in a world that still has a lot of fear surrounding HIV,” he explained. “We hope that this awareness changes hearts and minds and allows more people to stand on the right side of the issue with us. We find that this truly helps to reduce stigma and lets people see what HIV looks like – it looks like you and me.”

Another misconception that Aunt Rita’s is continuously working to correct is that HIV/AIDS is no longer an issue.

“So many people think that HIV/AIDS is not a problem anymore,” he said. “They hear about the AIDS Walk and a few remember the tough days when people were dying from the condition on a regular basis, [but] many don’t realize that HIV rates are on the rise in Arizona. We are at a critical time to get people out and to recreate the awareness [about HIV]. This is not a time to be complacent.”

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