By Danika Worthington, October 2016 Issue.

This year marks the 28th anniversary for AIDSWALK Tucson, presented by Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation (SAAF), making it one of Tucson’s oldest walks at a time when much-needed fundraising dollars are split among more and more causes.

Monique Vallery, associate director of development for SAAF, said the foundation expects between 1,500 and 2,000 people to participate in the Oct. 9 walk and raise a total of $150,000. This is the fifth year the walk will be part of Tucson Meet Yourself, a three-day food and folklore festival that brings in 100,000 visitors.

“To have a walk be 28 years old and to never miss a beat is really remarkable,” Vallery said.

Education and Resources

SAAF will also offer free HIV testing, condoms and lube. Last year, the foundation tested 117 people for HIV at the event.

“It’s a great opportunity to be in such a high[ly] visible festival that is mainstream,” Vallery said, later adding, “This is a great public forum, in essence, to stand up and help continue to break down that stigma and continue to educate people.”

Education is important to preventing the spread of the infection, Vallery explained, but so is keeping dollars coming in so the foundation can continue to offer its services. In addition, Vallery added, it’s a combination of ignorance and stigmas that can make people hesitant to contribute.

Sometimes people don’t donate because they don’t perceive HIV and AIDS as problems anymore, she continued, adding that she gets regularly asked if HIV is still around. In these instances, she said, she reminds them that the disease is still spreading, even if it’s not talked about.

More likely than not, she added, people know someone living with the disease but just don’t realize it.

The lack of awareness is not just limited to Tucson. Aunt Rita’s Foundation in Phoenix, which runs AIDS Walk Arizona, echoed these sentiments.

“It becomes harder and harder these days to raise money for HIV causes because, perception being reality, if people perceive that HIV is no longer an issue, they may see that there is not a need for HIV funding,” said Glen Spencer, executive director of Aunt Rita’s Foundation.

Fighting New Infections

According to John Sapero, office chief for HIV prevention at the Arizona Department of Health Services, 15 percent of the more than 16,000 Arizonans living with HIV are in Pima County. The county has the second most cases of HIV in the state, following Maricopa County.

Sapero emphasized that there were 100 new cases of HIV in Pima County in 2014, the most recent year available. He added that the rate of new infections is fairly consistent throughout Arizona.

Many of the individuals contracting the disease in Arizona are between the ages of 13 and 29, Sapero added. But according to Vallery, the demographics in Tucson skew differently – instead, growing among heterosexual adults older than 50.

Because of this, Vallery said it’s important to reach as broad of an audience as possible.

“It is hard to get corporate sponsors because of the fact that businesses are shifting where and what they can give to … There’s so many people in need,” Vallery said. “We’re very fortunate to have our community partners to be able to support us for a long time but there’s not a lot of them.”

This year, though, Vallery said she is excited about a partnership with Walgreens. The drugstore chain will sell red bracelets across Arizona from Sept. 25 to Oct. 9 and donate the proceeds to the Phoenix and Tucson AIDS walks.

All of the money from the bracelet sales and the AIDSWALK will go toward funding SAAF’s services. The walk is the largest of the foundation’s five major fundraising events throughout the year.

Photo by Bill Travis.

AIDS Memorial Quilt

Following the walk, SAAF will host its annual quilt opening ceremony in honor of those who have lost their lives to AIDS.

Each year, Vallery said attendees will come in from across Tucson, and throughout the rest of the state, to see their loved one’s panel on of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

“To me, the quilt opening ceremony is the most beautiful part of the event,” Vallery said.

There will be five memorial quilts from the NAMES Project Foundation, which is based out of Georgia. Memorial quilts, which are made up of four quilt panels, travel all over the world, Vallery explained. Vallery specifically requested quilts that included names of individuals with ties to Tucson.

Also on display will be 25 local quilt panels that SAAF cares for year-round bearing more than 275 names. SAAF will then present the quilts and read the names.

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