By Nancy Ford
It’s quite the awe-inspiring sight.
For the past 19 years, Houstonians from all walks of life—men, women, children, gay men, lesbians, clergy in collars—each of them taking part in the processional as it snakes down Allen Parkway. Creating a perfect photo op of caring, they gather together to step off as one, symbolically marching together against the scourge that has claimed more than 25 million lives since it entered our global consciousness in the early 1980s.
Each has a different reason for being there for AIDS Walk Houston. Some come with their church groups, dressed in their spring finery, eager to pull some Sunday-morning inspiration from the promenade along Buffalo Bayou in the gentle March sun. Some come with co-workers, corporately banding together in logo’d T-shirts, hoping to motivate employees through a common cause. Some come to remember a late partner, or daughter, or son, a photograph of the loved one pinned to their clothing. Some come with children who have never known the lost aunt or uncle. Some who have recently tested positive come for the hope that emanates from that many like-minded people. Some come as long-term, 20-plus-year survivors, daring their virus to do its worst with every step down Allen Parkway.
Regardless of motivation, they’re there, in numbers strong enough to nearly fill Reliant Stadium.
“You see Girl Scout troops, you see church groups, you see same-sex couples walking, you see straight couples walking—it’s all there,” says Paul-David Van Atta. “If you want to use a metaphor here, the walk is the face of the fight against AIDS.”
Relatively new to Houston, Van Atta first participated in AIDS Walk Houston in 2006 at the urging of his partner, Brian Teichman, who was walking with his real-estate firm.
“I said, ‘OK, how many of you are walking?’” Van Atta recalls asking his partner. “He said ‘32.”’
Van Atta had just moved to Houston from Washington D.C., where he had produced a gala that raised $250,000 to help shore up local AIDS service organizations. With numbers like that under his belt, Van Atta playfully scoffed at his partner’s $5,000 goal.
“I said, ‘That’s pathetic!’” he recalls, laughing. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what. I will walk, but I’ll walk as an individual walker, and I’ll match your $5,000!’”
After registering online and sending notices out to friends and associates, Van Atta had raised his $5,000—by the end of the next day.
“It just went on from there,” he now states, matter-of-factly.
Indeed, it did go on from there. The following year, after becoming more familiar with the mission of AIDS Foundation Houston (AFH), which organizes the walk, Van Atta and his walk team emerged as the number-one cash cow, bringing in approximately $42,000.
Van Atta’s walking group, dubbed Team Cabaret, then went on to produce one of the organization’s most successful fundraisers, Cabaret for Cure, which was held in January at the Hilton Americas, where Van Atta is director of catering. The event featured Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Oleta Adams and an array of local musical talent. By the close of the evening, AFH had realized an additional $262,000 to support its programs.
Gift of time
Despite his exemplary monetary track record. Van Atta recognizes another valuable commodity that AFH—and most nonprofit organizations—have in short supply.
“The hardest thing in the world to give, let’s be honest, is time,” he says. “It’s the one commodity that everyone gets the same amount, no matter who you are. And it’s difficult to give that.”
Kelly McCann, AFH chief executive officer, agrees.
“Community members can make a huge impact and support their favorite charities by giving of their time,” McCann says. “Not everyone has the money to donate, but just about everyone has a few hours to give each month. So I would encourage all citizens to decide where their passions are, then volunteer for organizations that embody that passion.”
For those readers whose passions reside with fighting HIV/AIDS, McCann has a suggestion. “AIDS Walk Houston needs hundreds of volunteers to help with all manner of tasks, from distributing information to setting up booths in the park the day before the walk, to greeting participants on the day of the event, to helping with cleanup after the walk.” (To volunteer, call 713/403-WALK.)
Work to be done
When asked why he chose AIDS Foundation Houston, in particular, as the beneficiary of his considerable fundraising skills, Van Atta’s answer is simple.
“They support everything that is of interest to me in the fight against this disease,” he says.
AFH currently administers 43 separate programs that continue to assist and comfort Houstonians infected with and affected by HIV. Programs include housing assistance, the Stone Soup food pantry program, camps both here in Texas as well as in Africa that provide normalcy and recreation for children living with HIV—and their families—and more.
Though AFH and other HIV/AIDS service agencies that have been valiant in educating the public about HIV, particularly how it is transmitted, have been in “business” for more than 25 years, Van Atta recognizes that there’s still work to be done.
“This thing [HIV] is on the rise just like it was in the ’80s,” he says. “First, it was a gay disease and a disease of stigma. Well, now it’s become mainstream. And if it’s not addressed forcefully and aggressively right now, we could end up in the same boat as some of the African countries.
“That’s really my fear,” he continues. “It’s amazing to me that my voice is now louder than it was years ago as I was losing friends. Sadly enough, I think the reason for that is that I can do that now and not have to do it on a gay platform. I can do it on a humanitarian platform.”
AIDS Walk Houston hosts the 19th annual AIDS Walk Houston on Sunday, March 9. Registration is at 8 a.m., and step off is at 10. The walk begins in Sam Houston Park (1000 Bagby). Details: 713/403-WALK or www.AIDSWalkHouston.org.
Now in its 19th year, AIDS Walk Houston raises funds to assist Houstonians living with or affected by HIV and AIDS, while simultaneously raising awareness of the disease.
This year AFH is collaborating with Chevron to produce the noncompetitive 3.1-mile walk. Proceeds from the event benefit AFH and these local AIDS service organizations that provide assistance to more than 100,000 Houstonians each year:
• Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative
• Bering Omega Community Services
• Brentwood Community Foundation
• Career and Recovery Resources, Inc.
• The Center for AIDS Information and Advocacy
• Families Under Urban and Social Attack, Inc.
• Houston Buyers Club
• Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program, Inc.
• The Lazarus House
• Legacy Community Health Services
• New Hope Counseling Center
• Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas, Inc.
• Rapha House Outreach Center, Inc.
• Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church
• Southeast Texas Legal Clinic
• Spay-Neuter Assistance Program, Inc.
• Texas Children’s Hospital Department of Allergy and Immunology
According to City of Houston Department of Health and Human Services:
• In Harris County, 55 percent of those persons diagnosed with AIDS since 1981 have died.
• Three Houstonians become infected with HIV every day.
• Five percent of the new HIV infections in Houston are occurring in teenagers, 13 to 19 years of age. Nine percent of the new infections are in persons over the age of 49.
• Since January 1, 1999, black women have accounted for 74 percent of HIV infections reported in females.
• Male-to-male sex has been the reported mode of transmission for 38-42 percent of all HIV infections since 1999 and 54 percent of AIDS diagnoses since 1981.