Talkin’ the walk 

“The fastest growing demographic of people with HIV are those between the ages of 13 and 24. It’s terrifying,” says Ken Rosen, vice president of Steppin’ Out and public relations chair for the AIDS Walk Detroit.

Rosen, a cheery albeit incredibly busy man, joined Steppin’ Out (a nonprofit organization and sponsor of the AIDS Walk Detroit event) six years ago. The cause is close to home.

“I lost a very close friend to AIDS, and I saw the impact that it had — not just on his life, but on his family and friends. ... the stigma is awful,” he laments.

Back in 1991, when the first AIDS Walk Detroit hit downtown Royal Oak, I was a volunteer. I was a junior in high school and as naive as they come. I don’t remember exactly why I chose to help. I do, however, remember being wholly intimidated. Would I be around actual AIDS victims? Would they look sick? Did I really belong there? Within minutes of my arrival at the event, I knew that I did, in fact, belong.

My responsibilities that day were simple. I registered walkers and supplied them with a bag full of goodies and reading materials. The people I met were extraordinary. They were chipper and grateful. “Thank-yous” flowed generously; smiles begat more smiles.

Besides the warm fuzzies, what I remember most was not the unconditional kindness of the organizers or the slaphappiness of the walkers. What stuck with me was the remarkable impact the event had on my perception of HIV, its victims, and those determined to fight back. I was surprised by the cross section of participants. Whole families showed up — teenagers, thirtysomethings, senior citizens, business owners, politicians.

I had expected to see a certain type of person — the type who would actually know somebody with AIDS. At 16, I didn’t realize that the type of people who cared about HIV weren’t a type at all. Neither were the people who contracted it. They still aren’t.

“AIDS is an equal-opportunity killer,” says Rosen.

Though recent surveys have shown that AIDS is spreading more rapidly in minority communities, Rosen explains that activists are trying to raise awareness everywhere. “There is no particular target.”

Listen to a young woman named Staci. On the AIDS Walk Detroit Web site (www.aidswalkdetroit.org) she testifies: “I have been HIV positive for 8 years. I was devastated when I found out and thought I was dead, but God is good. I was infected by an older gentleman that did not look or act like he was sick. As a matter of fact, he looked quite good when I was dating him. That is the point of my story. No matter what they say, how good they look, what their social standing is, please protect yourself.”

Steppin’ Out is committed to education as well as research.

“This is a preventable disease,” says Rosen. “I think that some people have come to think of it as ‘manageable,’ like diabetes. … Our goal is to help people protect themselves.” With the money raised (some $2 million since AIDS Walk Detroit’s inception). Steppin’ Out has contributed to a variety of causes, ranging from the Henry Ford Hospital to the Rainbow Alliance (an organization that provides support services to children and the families of children who have HIV/AIDS). Last year, the walk raised $330,000.

The significance of the day is really what keeps people like Rosen committed.

“I don’t know if it is the sight of 10,000 people all together for one cause or what … but this is incredibly important to the community,” he says.

 

Join the AIDS Walk Detroit in downtown Royal Oak on Sunday, Sept. 21. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. The walk begins at 10:30 a.m. Call 248-399-9255 for more information.

Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. E-mail edoster@metrotimes.com

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