NEW YORK -- The 24th AIDS Walk New York, the annual walkathon that raises money for local AIDS service organizations, took place in Manhattan on Sunday. Organizers estimate that more than 45,000 people attended, raising as much as $5.6 million.
Many participants walked in honor of people who they had lost to HIV/AIDS: a brother, a sister, a friend. Monique Parker came to pay tribute to her brother Anthony who passed away in 2005 at age 45. She explained that it had become a tradition for her to attend the event. A number of family members and friends had joined her in her homage to Anthony.
Minerva Velasquez came in memory of her sister Myriam who died of AIDS back in 1994, leaving two sons behind her. "It's a celebration for me. We honor the good times spent together, especially the fun moments," Velasquez said. "My sister was truly a very funny woman and I want her to be remembered that way. She never lost her humor until the very end."
Since its inception in 1986, the funds raised by AIDS Walk New York have benefited Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) - a not-for-profit, volunteer-supported and community-based organization that has been a leader in the fight against AIDS - and dozens of other tri-state HIV/AIDS service organizations. AIDS Walks allow service organizations to be accessible to anyone who is HIV positive, even people with little or no financial means, which helps local communities prevent the spread of the disease.
Participants met at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday and braved the drizzle and wind in Central Park, right by the Sheep Meadow (south of 72nd Street) where the walk started. The opening ceremony featured actress and singer Hilary Duff, Carson Kressley ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy") and Brooke Smith ("Grey's Anotomy"). In addition, the New York City Gay Men's Chorus - who greeted attendees with a "Welcome ladies and gentlemen and everyone in between" - were there to interpret popular songs such as the famous "Dancing Queen" by the band ABBA, which did not fail to cheer up the crowd before the beginning of the 6.2-mile walk.
Participants started walking through Central Park at 10 a.m. all the way up to 110th street - Cathedral Parkway - and down Riverside Drive before finishing up back in the park on 72nd street. Volunteers were cheering walkers and giving out free refreshments and snacks all along the way. The crowd was very diverse: young, old, gay, straight, black, Caucasian, Latino and the general atmosphere was very friendly.
The $5.6 million raised by this year's walkathon exceeded the low expectations that had been set in light of the recession. People seem to not have forgotten those who live with the virus, even in the midst of tough financial times.
"Today's powerful results show that tough times, indeed, will not break our stride," said Dr. Marjorie Hill said, the CEO of Gay Men's Health Crisis. Still, this year's results are a lot lower than in 2008, when AIDS Walk New York collected more than $7 million.
While a cure for HIV/AIDS has yet to be discovered, participants and organizers adopted a positive approach to the problem, which reflects a line by Harvey Milk that one could read on many a sign at the walk: "Hope will never be silent."