Atlanta’s AIDS Walk is the largest single fundraiser for a host of HIV organizations across the city, and also maintains its place on the calendar as one of the most diverse events in the city.
This year organizers hope to attract 8,000 walkers and runners with teams from Atlanta’s colleges, corporations, small businesses, churches and LGBT organizations. AID Atlanta, the walk’s primary organizing agency, said the diversity of the walk doesn’t happen by accident.
“We have two people whose entire job it is to develop teams, and to keep those teams very diverse. So they’re at Morehouse [College], and they’re at Burkhart’s Pub, and that’s exactly the approach, to get as many groups and people involved in possible,” said AID Atlanta Executive Director Tracy Elliott. “That’s possible because this is not a gay epidemic, or a black epidemic, a young epidemic, or an old epidemic; it really affects everyone.”
In part because of its diversity, the walk often acts as an entrée event into the world of nonprofit fundraising and gay activism.
“This is a safe space to do something about this epidemic, and that’s part of the design. It’s a lot easier for some people to come to an event with 10,000 people than one with 50,” said Elliott, who is gay. “I wasn’t totally in the closet, but the first thing I did was an AIDS walk in northern Indiana. I was still working at a fairly conservative bank at the time…
“That’s one of the great thing about the AIDS Walk,” he said. “You see all these college kids who are just starting to figure it out, and start to see what it’s all about.”
This year’s spokesperson is also new to the world of advocacy. Bobbie Bentley is a straight single mother who was diagnosed with HIV almost 10 years ago and relied on AID Atlanta and other organizations to provide a life for her child.
“We look for people who have a compelling story who are articulate enough to express those stories, and Bobbie is one of those people,” Elliott said. “AID Atlanta and Jerusalem House have really made a huge difference in her life and she’s courageous enough and articulate enough to tell her story.”
Reasons for walking
Participants all have their own reasons for raising funds. Some join in through social, school, or business groups; others walk in memory of individuals lost to HIV.
Lance Safford and Lance Lacy are among the many participants for whom the walk is personal. They’re the co-captains of the SunTrust team, a group of 66 co-workers who hope to raise $25,000 for the walk.
“I do it because my dad died in 1991 from AIDS,” Safford said. “This is my fourth year walking … It is to honor him, and it is also to bring awareness to Atlanta and the community about AIDS. Even though we have medications that help people live longer, we still have people who are uneducated about it.”
The AIDS Walk is the first fundraising Safford has been involved with, and he’s surprised at how successful it’s been.
“For me personally, people have been very responsive. I’m not afraid to tell the story anymore,” he said. “One of the things is when you’re a gay man raising money for the AIDS Walk, people assume it means that you’re positive, and that’s a stereotype I want to break… I tell people the store about my Dad, and you tell them that you don’t want to see anyone lose their dad, their mom, or their children because of it.”
Now in the third year of a slack economy the AIDS Walk is still trying to rebuild to its pre-recession $1 million high.
“We are trying to attract 7,500 walkers, 500 runners and $950,000.” Elliott said. “It peaked at $1.1 million in 2007 and has been building back since then.”
Not only are they trying to raise more money, organizers are trying to maximize the amount of donations given to the walk’s beneficiaries by cutting down on expenses.
“It’s our plan to cut back anywhere we can — anywhere where it doesn’t affect the experience of walkers and runners,” Elliott said. “So we’re just trying to cut back where we can, we really did that last year and we’re just trying to keep that going.”
There are 10 organizations participating in the walk this year. They range from service agencies like AID Atlanta and AID Gwinnett, mental health organizations like Aniz and Positive Impact and housing services like Jerusalem House and Living Room.
Living Room makes its return to the AIDS Walk after a decade-long absence and Executive Director Dolph Ward Goldenburg hopes to make the most of it. Supporters hope to raise $10,000 to add to their unrestricted budget.
“The key word there is unrestricted,” Goldenburg said, noting that most state and federal grants have specific requirements for how the money can be spent.
“Those unrestricted dollars are what allows us to grow our infrastructure and our own internal capacity,” he said.
The Living Room is the largest housing provider in the region for people with HIV or AIDS, Goldenburg said. The agency serves as the primary hub for all the HIV housing providers in the Atlanta region, and has programs to deal with specific housing needs, such as transgender individuals.