WALK ON 20 Years Later

Now more than ever, AIDS Walk Houston is vital to area charities.

By Nancy Ford • Photos by Dalton DeHart

A record number of participants in AIDS Walk 2008 helped elevate proceeds to more than $1 million.

In 1990, Texas Ranger Nolan Ryan logged his 300th major league baseball win. Now-Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee was beginning her first term on Houston’s city council. And nearly 8,000 cases of HIV, primarily infecting gay men, had been diagnosed in Texas.

 Funds to support those ailing Texans were scarce. Texas state senator Carl Parker, a democrat from Port Arthur, had recently denounced state funding for AIDS programs, calling it “pouring money down a rat hole.”

 By necessity, Houstonians were taking more personal responsibility in fighting the spreading, deadly disease that had insidiously introduced itself to the gay community a mere nine years earlier.

“The very first year, 1990, when our AIDS walk was called ‘From All Walks of Life,’ there were probably 200 people—if that—who showed up downtown to raise awareness and funds for HIV,” Kelly McCann recalls.

U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is Grand Marshall

 It is impossible for McCann, chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston, which produces AIDS Walk Houston, not to be a bit reflective considering how far the walk has come since its inception.

 “It’s such an amazing thing to think that most of those few 200 people who showed up were people living with HIV who were still healthy enough to walk.”

 Though HIV and AIDS had been a reality in Houston since the early 1980s, it remained a stigmatizing illness a decade later, even to the extent that close friends and supporters were sometimes hesitant to be spotted at an event as visible as a public walk.

 “We made virtually no money,” McCann say. “Of course, we’ve been very proud to be able to grow the event and grow the impact.

 “And we are still so honored to be doing this work, 20 walks later,” she continues. “But we certainly realize and are humbled by the fact that we don’t do it alone. This is a true grass-roots, community-wide effort, and we are deeply indebted to the people of Houston.”

 McCann hopes for a warm, sunny day for those 15,000-or-so Houstonians who now converge annually on downtown’s Sam Houston Park the morning of the walk, adding that only the most extreme weather emergency would prevent the walk from occurring.

 “One year, Mexico was burning the sugar cane fields and all that smoke drifted up to Houston,” she recalls. “The air quality was so poor it was unhealthy, and we had to move the walk indoors. Thousands of people just walked around and around inside the George R. Brown!

AIDSWalkLogo “But, you see again, neither rain nor sleet nor smog nor dark of night will keep people from coming out, and that is a great thing for us and for the HIV community,” McCann reasons. “It shows that, yes, people still care about this issue, they still support people living with HIV, and they know that it’s still a serious health crisis in our community.”

 McCann estimates as much as $6 million has been raised over the years by AIDS Walk Houston, distributed to AFH and partner agencies to help fund a diverse array of programming; for the first time since its inception, last year’s walk broke the $1 million mark. She attributed last year’s increase not only to the hard work of AFH’s staff, but also to the walk’s partner agencies. “Those partnerships plus greater and greater numbers of people joining up, becoming team members and raising funds lends itself to—no pun intended—the viral sort of expansion of AIDS Walk that I hope we’ll see continue.”

 But that was 2008. This year’s final tally from 2009 may yield a bleaker result.

 “Because of the economic problems, all areas may suffer; all sorts of AIDS service organizations are going to be in a whole world of hurt, potentially,” McCann says. “There is an increasing need, especially when there is an economic downturn, for the types of services that AIDS Foundation Houston provides—basic needs like food and housing, and certainly greater access to medical care, and greater needs in prevention and awareness.”

 Despite readily available information regarding knowledge of how the AIDS virus is spread, and valiant attempts by local and national organizations to stem that rising tide, HIV/AIDS infection rates have reached alarming numbers. In 1990, the World Health Organization estimated that 8 to 10 million people were living with HIV worldwide. It is now estimated that 25,000 individuals are HIV-positive in Houston alone, with t hree more citizens becoming infected every day. Further, new estimates from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that as many as 55,000 new infections occur in the United States each year.

 Compounding those startling statistics, AFH is seeing smaller-than-normal gifts per person, McCann says. The good news is, more teams and individuals had registered for the walk so far this year than in past years.

 “We’re up nine percent on teams. So we are hoping that everything will kind of come out in the wash, and that we’ll have more people giving fewer dollars for the same outcome.

 “Even though it would be great if it happened, we don’t expect to hit the million-dollar mark again this year,” McCann concludes realistically. “But nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong.”

The 20th annual AIDS Walk Houston, a non-competitive 5k pledge walk, is set for Sunday, March 15, at Sam Houston Park, Bagby at Lamar in downtown Houston. On-site registration begins at 8 a.m., with opening ceremonies at 9 a.m., and the walk stepping off at 10 a.m. To register or donate, call 713/403-WALK (9255) or visit AIDSWalkHouston.org.

  A Fitting Tribute to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee

 A long-time supporter and advocate for AFH and HIV/AIDS issues, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is being honored with the title of grand marshal of the 20th Annual AIDS Walk Houston. Through legislation, Congresswoman Jackson Lee has helped bring $48 billion to three million people, many of whom are fighting HIV and AIDS in the Bayou City.

 “AIDS Foundation Houston has been a major champion of fighting the devastation of HIV/AIDS, not only in the Houston community but worldwide,” says Congresswoman Jackson Lee, who represents Texas’ 18th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives. “I am proud to serve as grand marshal for an organization that uses its resources to pointedly help individuals who are dealing with HIV/AIDS as well as to encourage and create programs to educate and to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. AIDS Walk Houston, being one of the largest walks in the country, has proven the durability of the foundation to never give up on the war against HIV/AIDS. Together with AIDS Foundation Houston’s leadership, we will achieve victory in saving the many lives impacted by this disease.”

 Hot Coffee, Grande Hearts

 Before losing his battle with AIDS in 2004, Patrick Chees was a regular at the Montrose-based Starbucks coffee shop. District manager Angela Lara and staff missed Chees’ smile and ability to enhance people’s lives—so much that, in 2005, they began hosting an annual silent auction in his honor, donating all proceeds to AIDS Foundation Houston.

 “As Patrick grew weaker near the end of his short but wonderfully full life, his trips to Starbucks were less frequent,” Chees’ family shares. “He would be pleased that he is still remembered by the crew and customers of this store.”

 In addition to various pieces of art which is available for viewing and bidding on throughout the day of the auction, other donated items include memberships to local museums and theaters, certificates to restaurants and businesses, basketballs autographed by Magic Johnson and members of the Houston Rockets, skydiving adventures, jewelry, purses, pottery, photography — treasures Chees would have loved. March 6, 5–9 p.m. Starbucks, 3407 Montrose Blvd. Details: 713/521-7278.

 AIDS Walk Houston 2009, this year presented by Chevron, is a community-wide event that attracts thousands of Houstonians each year. Though the walk is produced each year by AIDS Foundation Houston, funds raised benefit local AIDS service organizations.
“This is one of the things I love most about our partnerships with partner agencies,” McCann says. “The partner agencies raise money for their own organizations, using AIDS Walk as their vehicle.
Each of the partner agencies keep 75 percent of what they raise, with 25 percent going to AFH to cover administrative cost.
“We don’t require that our partner agencies be solely AIDS service organizations, but they must have programs that serve those living with the disease, or they have some sort of prevention program,” McCann continues. “SNAP, for example, has a wonderful AIDS program. They provide either free or reduced cost vaccinations, neutering, and other pet care to the animal companions of people who are living with HIV and AIDS.”

 Working, Walking Together

 2009 Partner Agencies
• Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative
832/822-1038 • bayloraids.org
• Bering Omega Community Services
713/529-6071 • beringomega.org
• Bread of Life, Inc.
713/650-0595 • breadoflifeinc.org
• Brentwood Community Foundation
713/852-1451 • brentwoodfoundation.org
• The Center for AIDS Information and Advocacy
713/527-8219 • centerforaids.org
• Family Fight Against HIV/AIDS, Inc.
• Houston Buyers Club
713/520-5288 • houstonbuyersclub.com
• Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program, Inc.
713/228-0735 • ehvlp.org
• The Lazarus House
713/526-5071 • thelazarushouse.org
• Legacy Community Health Services
713/830-3000 • legacycommunityhealth.org
• Planned Parenthood of Houston and
Southeast Texas, Inc.
713/522-6363 • pphouston.org
• Resurrection MCC
713/861-9149 • resurrectionmcc.org
• Spay-Neuter Assistance Program, Inc. (SNAP)
713/862-3863 • snapus.org
• Texas Children’s Hospital – Department of Allergy & Immunology
832/824-1319 • bcm.edu/pediatrics


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