Written by CHUMA
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Initially, I wasn’t slated to attend AIDS Walk Atlanta. I had planned else wise for my Sunday. But on Friday afternoon, at the last minute, I became overwhelmed with a compelling desire to register for the event by the memory of Mark Wood.
Mark Wood was a co-worker of mine, who was killed in a car accident at the end of September. He was always charmingly witty and warm when we’d run into each other in the office hallways, and he even attended one of my book signings held in my home. There was just something sincere and endearing about him, and I felt deep sadness upon news of his death. For years, he was the AIDS Walk team captain for my company, Alston & Bird, organizing the event and managing fundraising, and I found his yearly contributions to the AIDS Walk very inspiring. Then I thought about all the people I knew who have died from AIDS and all the people I know who are living with it. I took heavy introspection of how it has personally affected my life, and I decided that in no way would I miss being there. So I went. And I was so happy I did.
The weather gleamed in absolute perfection as the luminescent sun anointed the day. Converging on the great swathe of lawn in Piedmont Park, thousands of people of various races and cultures, from the adolescent to the experienced, were laughing, sharing, crying, reflecting, acknowledging, and exchanging any and everything that represented acceptance, awareness, and unity regarding this crucial matter. Representing in groups were organizations, colleges, corporations, and churches, many of them gathering at a table or a tent displaying a banner of who they were. Then there was the quilt; the infamous quilt display that shrouded a vast portion of the verdant lawn. As I viewed the many panels of the quilt, and read the declarations and pathos and posthumous acknowledgements, accompanied with pictures of loved-ones passed, I became emotionally moved. It was breathtaking, to say the least. There was a marching band playing music near the large stage that was nestled at the head of the Charles Allen side of the park where a ceremony took place to honor the event. It is my understanding that many graced the stage, some dignitaries, some community activists, and even someone’s mother spoke about her son who lost his life to the insidious disease.
At some point, I had the pleasure of running into Craig Washington who stood on the stage and read names of those who passed away. The champion educator and community activist, who works with Positive Impact, an organization that provides mental health and prevention services for people affected by HIV, was enthusiastic, yet pensively nostalgic when I talked to him.
When asked what this day meant to him, he replied, “This day has been a day of remembrance, certainly a day of reconnecting with other people who are deeply touched by this epidemic; who have an intimate experience with it, and has a commitment to making things better for people living with HIV. So when we see ourselves like this out in the open in the park, it’s very different from being in the conference room; it’s more natural, it’s more free, it’s more open. There are more smiles. So it’s an opportunity for us to support as we mourn those we lost, which is an important part of it, too. We are mourning but we are also moving. It’s not an either/or. I think we are doing both. This walk is a good example of that. We get a chance to grieve and remember, but also the actual physical act of walking symbolizes action and movement.”
When he talked, he had a dichotomy of being contemplative, yet in his eyes danced a celebration. When I asked him if he had a personal attachment to this day, he answered with effortless confidence, “I have levels of attachments to it, yes. I have been HIV positive for the past 22 years now, and I have lost many along the way. And this year in particular, two people that were involved in some sort of AIDS advocacy work have gone before us: Tony Childs, who has been doing education and advocacy for as long as I can remember, and Jay Lawrence “L” Warren, a young man, barely 30 years old if that old. And so it carries that weight for me, and of course the kind of work that I do at Positive Impact. So it’s personal; my personal experience with HIV, living with it in my body as well as the effect it has on friends, those who are still here, and those who are HIV negative, as well.”
I felt great admiration for Craig, as I was honored to be a witness to his honesty and sacrifice of sharing himself with the world in order to be a role model. He moved me profoundly. Then I asked him if he felt there were any examples of how the money generated from the AIDS Walk has helped the community and has not, and he replied, “I don’t know if it has not helped in any way, but it just depends on what it’s for. I mean if the outcome is about spreading awareness and invigorating people about generating money to support services, then yes, it has helped. I don’t know to what extent it has failed. I think there is so much that an AIDS walk can do. An AIDS walk is not in and of itself going to give us the cure. It’s not going to fund any one particular organization. But it helps. Especially with the current economy and the current political climate that is ideologically not progressive and ideologically homophobic and heterosexual. So we need events that take place from outside of government sources; that can help raise dollars and help keep our organizations in the public eye. So when they hear "AIDS Survival Project," people may have a sense about who they are and what they do. I may not know who is doing what across the country, but I know who is doing it here in Atlanta, such as Positive Impact, simply because the AIDS Walk brings forth that exposure.”
Speaking of exposure, it was a delight to see so many young people; some adolescents and some college students, most grouped in fraternities and sororities. I was curious as to their exposure to awareness, because when I was a teenager the altitude of HIV and AIDS awareness was so prevalent and highly visible. But in today’s era, that campaign has sort of tempered. So I approached a group of girls that were concentrated in the center of the crowd, holding a sign that labeled their sorority, Omicron Xi Chapter at Emory University of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
Sorority member, Kristin Young, had this to say when I asked her were the youth of this day and age more aware or less aware of HIV and AIDS. “Honestly, I feel that the youth are less aware. A lot of things on TV have nothing to do with real issues that are going on in the community. I feel strongly about that because of the superficial things that the community is presented with everyday through the media. The youth are less aware of the serious issues, so it’s good to see so many young people out here today.”
When I prodded her further about the significance of this event from her perspective, she responded, “It’s just a way for us to show our support for all the people that are living with AIDS or has died from AIDS, and it raises awareness about the subject to try to get more people to fund research to help the cause.”
I spotted another sorority, the Zeta Phi chapter of Delta Sigma Theta at Georgia State, standing in the congested gathering of people waiting for the walk to commence. When I asked, Mercedes Parker, who was walking in association with the sorority, if she thought that the youth today were practicing awareness in regards to HIV and AIDS prevention, she replied, “I believe that some of them do, but I believe that the majority of them don’t, because we as young people sometimes think that we are invincible and that nothing can ever happen to us. Unfortunately, I think that kind of plays into the mindset of whether or not we’ll use protection and practice being safe.”
After her statement, I became a little melancholy for a few minutes as I remembered a recent study I read that stated half of all new infections in the United States occur in people 25 years of age or younger. As I reflected on all the HIV prevention that was embedded into my generation when we were teenagers, I became worried that the same education wasn’t as prevalent today. I, myself, came out having sex with condoms, but the new generation isn’t necessarily emerging with that mindset. And while I haven’t always been absolutely safe when engaging in sex, I still knew better. But I wondered if the generation of today really does. So I decided to approach a young man who was with the Alpha Kappa Alpha of Stone Mountain. He was adamant about remaining anonymous, but was very willing to speak with me. He had this to say about HIV prevention. “Man, most of my friends fuck raw. We know that we should use condoms, but in the moment, sometimes, you get lost in the feeling and somehow the condom gets left out. I’m guilty of this as well, and being here reminds me of how I need to be more cautious and practice safe sex.”
Shannor Huff, a residential advisor at Covenant House, was there chaperoning a young man he was mentoring. “The purpose I am here on this particular day is to support everyone and let the youth that I work with know that HIV is something that they need to be aware of. I work with homeless youth between 16 and 21, and they are extremely vulnerable. In fact, I have one of my youth with me here today so that he can have better knowledge and understanding of what is going on and how serious it is to protect himself from AIDS.”
Elder Paris Eley of Vizions Church of Atlanta was very forthright and inspirationally honest. “This day is important to me because it gives me an opportunity to remember the individuals who affected my life who transitioned as a result of HIV/AIDS, and to honor and support people like myself who are living with the virus; who are trying to live a healthy and victorious life as opposed to going somewhere feeling defeated and dying in the process. So this becomes a living testimony of those who have gone before and those who are still holding up the banner. This is important to me.”
I was so touched by his personal affirmation of the virus; I couldn’t help but to give him a hug. And that is how it was throughout the day; moments of hugs and tears, laughter and reflecting. As I walked with my Alston & Bird co-workers through the residential neighborhood of Midtown Atlanta, I thought of Mark Wood. I thought of how my fellow co-workers were there for many different reasons, but many of them shared the same sentiment about Mark.
Cheryl Naja, who is the pro-bono service coordinator at Alston & Bird shared her thoughts with me about this day. “This day probably means more this year than ever before just because we lost Mark Wood, our team captain, who forever championed this cause, and we sort of took for granted that he would do the fundraising, and that he would help deliver the message so that we don’t forget about people who need services; and not forget about our young people who need the educational programs. We need a lot of those things. And now I feel like more than ever we all need to help sort of carry that message whether it is to support people through meal delivery services or if it’s other services such as drug research or other things that we can do to help people improve lives; improve their personal lives. We have to make a difference in the world. It’s not just Atlanta, it’s a global picture.”
Then I asked, “Since the AIDS Walk has been going on for so many years, how do you think it has supported the situation worldwide?” She replied, “Worldwide the drug research money has been created. Also, there are things that we see that were developed to make living with HIV possible. But the heartache; the things that have not been improved are the children that have been left behind without parents. Also, some of the ignorance, such as the people who want to ignore it and believe that it is a gay only disease, but it’s not. In our firm, particularly, we have an associate who goes to work with AIDS orphans in Africa, and it shows that this disease is still alive and still well, and we have to believe that change starts in our community, and we are the ones who make the change. And that is what makes the world better.”
David Bagwell, a legal recruiter coordinator at the company, echoed the same sentiments about Mark. “Mark was a personal friend of mine, and I actually knew him before I started at the firm and he hired me. He was my boss for the first six years I was at A&B, and I helped him to try to orchestrate the AIDS Walk for three years, which makes being here extra special. It means so much more this year. He is sorely missed and this was so important to him, so I’m glad I can support this great cause. It has affected our community so much. This is actually my fifteenth year. I started in 1992. It was drizzly and cold, and I had a terrible sinus infection, which has gotten better every year since. It’s just a near, dear cause, and very personal. Alston & Bird has been so instrumental with helping with it, and I’m glad to be here.”
In a conversation with co-workers Dave DeRoo and Nicole Cromwell about the meaning of this day for them, David went on to say, “I’m here to show my support for all of the friends I have lost all the years because of this disease, also to show in my own little small way my desire to help people in this situation because this is a terrible disease.” Nicole chimed in, "It means a lot to me. I have family members affected by the disease and I’m just here to support. My uncle died in 2004 from the disease and complications and I have another uncle who is surviving with the disease. I also have a lot of friends living with it as well.”
As people talked more about relatives and friends they lost, Jeff Swart, a partner at Alston & Bird, broke my heart when he offered his reason for what the day meant for him. “When I was in law school, one of my good friends, Angelo Kalpa was stricken with the AIDS disease. When he was a charity patient at the Georgia Baptist Hospital, I was studying for a final exam. And I came to see him, but then I quickly left because I had to study, and I didn’t think that I had time to stay with him. Well he died that night. And ever since then I decided that I have time for the AIDS Walk. That is what this day means to me.”
But it was George Rice, A&B’s applications support analyst, who summed the day up short and sweet. “If everybody did their part in this world, it would be a much better place.”
Personally, the day was very emotion and fulfilling, and worth every bit of subsequent pain that my feet endured from the pounding it gave the pavement during the walk. It meant surviving many years of being affected by this disease, and being able to venerate the many people that I know who lived their lives with HIV and AIDS in the light before dying from it. It meant a new beginning of forming more alliances with people and organizations that are dedicated to helping others who are living with this infiltration to prevail. As a writer, it meant contributing something to the world that would leave a legacy behind, such as an anthology that can generate money for charity or simply just to keep others updated on the services and medicinal benefits offered to the community. It meant knowing that I have a responsibility to contribute my part, as George Rice said.
Mark Wood, this one is for you. Thank you for inspiring me on this amazing day of diversity and unity.
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