Tuesday, May 22, 2012

On Sunday, May 20th, approximately 45,000 people converged in the streets of Manhattan for the AIDS Walk NY, and I am honored to have been one of them.  Walkers and wheelers of all ages and all ethnicities trekked 10 kilometers through Central Park and around the West Side, each of us with our own stories in every step.

We passed volunteers who shouted at us from the opposite side of the caution tape to “keep walking” and blew encouraging whistles in our direction. There were also tourists and NYC residents who joined us for a bit, curious and overwhelmed by the number of people walking.  “What are you fighting for?” I remember one woman yelling at us from the sidewalk.  “It’s the AIDS walk,” a man next to me answered, “we’re walking for awareness and a cure.”

Photo by Kyle Sweet
Each person had a story to tell, and we heard a few of them as we stopped to take footage.  My fellow intern and walker Kyle, brought along his camera and stopped to ask questions of people we wanted to know more about.  Some participants were walking for the twelfth time.  There were families with names of loved ones on their T-shirts, and co-workers who walked for companies that supported AIDS research.  Many walkers with their children and dogs, walked hand-in-hand, and held up banners proclaiming where they came from, and who they were walking for.  Others, like me, joined the fight for AIDS awareness recently, and this was our first walk.

Photo by Kim J. Ford for Lionqueen192 Productions, Inc.

For me, being surrounded by so many veterans of previous AIDS walks was powerful and also intimidating.  Was my brief encounter with this passionate world substantial enough that I was qualified to walk next to people who had seen their lovers and loved ones die from AIDS?  I was not alive when many of the walkers watched half of their friends contract a mysterious and deadly virus.  I have no way of knowing the pain fellow walkers felt when they discovered, years later, that their son’s, boyfriend’s, or grandmother’s HIV had finally morphed into AIDS, which was, at that time, a death sentence. 

Photo by Kyle Sweet
As I counted the number of AIDS Walk NY pins on the back of one man’s vest, I was reminded again of how the fight has changed since the first walk, in 1986. Today, people diagnosed with HIV who receive treatment can expect to live almost as long as a person not diagnosed with the disease.  However, if a person doesn’t know she’s HIV positive, doesn’t get tested, or doesn’t tell her partners about the diagnosis, she could spread HIV by not protecting herself and others.  When I think about how little most people know about HIV/AIDS and the importance of protection, the fight remains the same.  Everyone needs to know what happens when you neglect your body and sexual health, and what fights still need our attention.  Today, there are 33 million people living with HIV, and only 3 million are getting treatment.  Even with these statistics, unfortunately, according to a 2009 National Aids Strategy Coordinating Committee Report shows that the American public has become increasingly less concerned with HIV/AIDS. 

Yesterday, there were many, many people who raised money and walked for the cause, but there were so many more people who were not there.  Few of my peers and friends at home and at school knew that I was walking, and none of them were at the walk with me.  In my health class in high school, HIV/AIDS was a 30-minute PowerPoint lecture, mostly about how deadly HIV/AIDS used to be.

Photo by Kim J. Ford for Lionqueen192 Productions, Inc.
HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness is not an issue that my friends and I discuss when we hang out.  To our generation, HIV/AIDS is archaic and a none-issue; most people are under the impression that AIDS now has a cure.  That needs to change.  If we are to live in a safer, healthier, more conscious world, our generation of YouTube-watching, Facebook-stalking teens needs to know that kids our age are still being diagnosed with HIV, and even more of those teens simply do not know how to prevent the disease or how to get tested.  And that is what I walked for Sunday: I walked as a promise to get the word out, to get my friends to be aware of the current fight, and to get more young people behind the AIDS fight.  Even though I’m not a long-time walker, and even though I don’t have as many stories to tell, I was as much a part of the AIDS Walk as anyone else because I’m determined to get the word out.

Remember: no matter how you get down, protect yourself. Get tested. 

Check out this HIV/AIDS photo retrospective: 

--Virginia Marshall
GET DOWN Youth Blogger

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