By Danika Worthington, October 2016 Issue.

The 2016 AIDS Walk Arizona and 5K Run, presented by Aunt Rita’s Foundation, will hit the streets of Phoenix Oct. 23. This year marks the organization’s most ambitious fundraising goal and a new after-party celebration to match.

Aunt Rita’s is aiming to raise $400,000 this year, a feat Glen Spencer, executive director of Aunt Rita’s foundation, admits won’t be easy.

The walk raised $375,000 during its most successful year – in 2008 when it returned from a five-year hiatus – but typically brings in around $330,000 with more than 6,000 participants.

A Winning Combination

Richard Stevens and Barb Eldridge at the 2010 AIDS Walk. Photo courtesy of Aunt Rita's Foundation.

It’s no coincidence that year’s co-chairs – Richard Stevens (aka Barbra Seville) and Barb Eldridge – are the two most successful fundraisers in the event’s history.

Eldridge formed Team Rychard and has been participating in AIDS walks since her son, Rychard, passed away in 2004 at age 36. In 2009, Stevens created the Barbra Seville’s Wonderful 100 team as “a way to harness the energy and enthusiasm of his friends and supporters.”

After their first neck-and-neck year, Stevens said he just ‘had to meet this Rychard guy.’ Instead he met Barb. The two shared a laugh that Richard Stevens ran the Barbara Seville team while Barb ran the Rychard team. There were also some tears, the co-chairs recalled, and a friendship formed.

While Eldridge and Stevens continue their friendly competition for Phoenix's top fundraising spot, they both said they’re looking forward to joining forces in support of Aunt Rita’s this year.

“We need to do everything that we can and keep this [education] going and keep the awareness [increasing],” Eldridge said. “The statistics are so unbelievably high that it just upsets me.”

A New Reason to Celebrate

This year, Aunt Rita's invites participants to enjoy the new addition of a beer garden and food trucks following the event.

According to event organizers, the goal was to create an environment that encourages participants to stick around and learn more about HIV – something Stevens said he’s been encouraging for years.

“I think people want to do something when it’s over. They want to celebrate. They want to mark the achievement,” Stevens said. “[There’s] nothing wrong with having a little celebration.”

According to Spencer, the walk and after party will have a festival atmosphere with local entertainment on the main stage, food, beer and vendors.

“It’ll be fun,” Spencer said, “but we want to remind people that this is a serious public health concern in our community.”

Also new this year will be the option of a special shirt for individuals who want to self-identify as living with HIV, Spencer said.

“We think that a publically overt display of an individual willing to self-identify is a potentially powerful message for people to help destigmatize the HIV infection,” Spencer said.

The 2015 AIDS Walk Arizona and 5K Run in Downtown Phoenix. Photo by

A Platform for Educating

According to Spencer, the AIDS Walk serves as both a fundraiser and an educational opportunity.

“People under 30 just don’t perceive HIV as a disease of their generation and instead perceive it as a disease of my generation,” Spencer said.

The number of young people who don’t take the disease seriously enough bothers Eldridge.

“They think now that there’s medicine out, they think, ‘Oh, if it happens to me I’ll just take the pill,” she said, adding that it takes a lot more to live a healthy life with HIV than just a pill.

A little more than 16,000 people are living with HIV in Arizona, 70 percent of whom reside in Maricopa County, according to John Sapero, office chief for HIV prevention at the Arizona Department for Health Services.

Sapero added that he estimates 3,000 people have the disease but don’t know it.

In 2014, the most recent year available, there were 750 new cases of HIV in the state, 570 of which were in Maricopa County, Sapero explained. Of those new cases, 38 percent were people between the ages of 13 and 29.

Sapero also emphasized that the disease disproportionately affects African Americans, Hispanics and Latinos – both nationally and in Arizona.

According to Spencer, a black man who has unprotected sex with another man has a 50/50 chance of getting HIV. He also said the American Indian community is three times more likely to contract HIV than the Caucasian population.

But someone who is HIV positive, Sapero said, can reduce the risk of spreading the disease by 92 percent if they take the proper medicine. And if they use condoms as well, then they can reduce the risk to less than 2 percent.

Proceeds from the walk will be distributed among the organization’s 16 partner agencies, which provide prevention education and services to people affected by HIV and AIDS.

“I know that the money we’re raising [is] a drop in the bucket to really fight this fight,” Stevens said. “But I think it sends the message to people that we care about them.”

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