The walk kicked off at Friendship Plaza in downtown Cartersville at 10 a.m. with registration, music and volunteers from the AIDS Alliance distributing red T-shirts. A local gym owner led a warm-up before the walk began at 11 a.m. Participants dressed in red lined up, ready to “paint the town.”
“Our walk is just a 2.1-mile walk around downtown Cartersville; we loop around some of the neighborhoods,” said Lola Thomas, executive director for the AIDS Alliance. “We will be sporting our red T-shirts and carrying our big, red, balloon arch to be visible in the community so we can raise awareness about HIV and AIDS. Our goal is to raise money and to be visible in the community so that people know AIDS exists not only in big metropolitan areas but in rural areas like ours as well.
“[The AIDS Alliance] has been providing services related to HIV and AIDS since 1992 and our mission has always been to provide companionate services to all of our people who might live with HIV and AIDS and also to help prevent HIV and AIDS. Since there is no cure for HIV, prevention is everything.”
Thomas ended the festivities by releasing white balloons to acknowledge and remember the loved ones lost to AIDS and HIV.
The walk raised $5,000 which the nonprofit will use to further its mission- to provide a broad, compassionate range of free services in response to the HIV epidemic including prevention-education, advocacy, and client-centered programs.” These services include: transportation for clients, housing, food programs, emergency assistance, free HIV Rapid Testing, advocacy, spiritual opportunities, HIV prevention classes and referral resources. All services are confidential.
“We, like any other nonprofit, are dependent on the generosity of the community to help us keep our doors open,” said Thomas. “With AIDS, there’s still that stigma that exists that we battle constantly related to HIV and AIDS. So it’s a little harder for us to raise money than maybe we wish it was. So the generosity of folks that are willing to come out and help us and donate and raise dollars [helps] us keep our doors open. We do write and apply to grants so we do get some grant money, especially related to housing. We still couldn’t do it without donations from the communities.
“There are a lot of people that don’t know there is an AIDS Alliance [in Cartersville]. So with [the AIDS Walk], by people going out and asking for donations and seeing other people they know participate, it makes them say to themselves, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there was an AIDS alliance here,’ or ‘I didn’t know AIDS was an issue,’ or ‘I didn’t know HIV was an issue.” So it’s all about that; it’s all about increasing awareness.’”
One participant in Saturday’s walk, Kristie Tillett, co-founder of LGBT Families of Cartersville, believes the AIDS Walk has helped spread the word that there is local support for the AIDS community, that it is not hopeless. Tillett encourages people to donate to the AIDS Alliance to keep the program alive.
“We always donate to the AIDS community, especially the AIDS Alliance here in Bartow County,” said Tillett. “I was donating prior to knowing that they had residential areas set up to try to help those whose families have turned against them. Now, anytime we get anything at all that we think someone else could use, we donate to [AIDS Alliance]. We’ve learned that anytime you have something, like a shirt that you may not think is in style, they need that. Instead of throwing it away or giving it to Goodwill, because they turn around and sell it, give it to someone who’s going to turn around and give it to someone else. It’s important to feel like a person even though you’ve got that disease.”
The AIDS Alliance of Northwest Georgia began as the Bartow AIDS Alliance in 1992. While the name of the nonprofit changed, the goal to educate and prevent has remained the same. The AIDS Alliance offers free HIV testing on Tuesdays or by appointment. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 1 in 5 Americans living with HIV does not know it.
For more information on the AIDS Alliance of North Georgia or upcoming events, visit www.aanwg.org or call 770-606-0953.