Their stories are legion, as varied as the 200 people who set out down the Atlantic City Boardwalk on Sunday for the New Jersey AIDS Walk.
A grieving mother who had to do something. An advocate inspired to action by a family member’s struggle. A mayor who remembers the funerals of AIDS victims. A police officer who works amid the fallout of the epidemic.
“Today, I really miss him a lot, but I know he’s here with us,” said Cathy Kurz, 50, of Williamstown, as she waited for the walk to begin.
In August, Kurz’s son Jeffrey died from HIV. As soon as she heard that there was an AIDS Walk an hour from her house, she organized a team for the event. About a dozen of his family and friends gathered in purple shirts with red lettering.
Being able to channel her pain into something has helped, Kurz said. Jeffrey stopped taking his medications for a time because he didn’t have insurance for the costly drugs, a reality Kurz wants to fight.
Remembering her son’s fun-loving personality, she said, “he was the biggest pain in the ass I had, but I miss him so much.”
The AIDS Walk began in Atlantic City about 15 years ago, but for the past four years, it has expanded to include Atlantic City, Asbury Park, Morristown, Newark and Ridgewood. In addition to improving awareness of the autoimmune disease, the walks help raise money for nonprofits that help those who’ve been diagnosed and prevent the spread of HIV to others.
Rosalind Williams, quality assurance officer for the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, said funding cuts have made the organizations’ work more difficult. For instance, grants for prevention initiatives to help black women have dried up in recent years.
“There’s clearly a need for that population,” said Williams, whose job includes pursuing grants for the nonprofit. “This is why we do fundraisers like this: It’s because our state funding does not cover all the services we provide the community.”
The agency provides programs across South Jersey, including testing for HIV and other diseases, support services for HIV-positive individuals, and prevention programs, such as condom distribution and needle exchanges.
Like many of the walkers, Williams has a personal connection. She became involved after a cousin she was close to succumbed to the illness. Her family didn’t talk about the disease when he died, but she wanted to do something about it.
Michelle Green, 48, of Atlantic City, was one of about six local police officers who came out to join the walk. She remembers the anxiety and uncertainty around the disease from when it first gained public attention, as her then-newborn daughter was in the hospital in 1985.
“I was scared of anything they had to do her,” she said. “I didn’t want her to catch this disease, because we didn’t know much about how it was transmitted.”
HIV doesn’t have the same stigma it had then, she said, but it’s still something people need to be concerned about. As a police officer, Green has to deal with the realities of an ongoing epidemic.
“It affects the way I do my jobs sometimes when I’m on the street, (for instance) who I have to deal with when I go into people’s homes,” she said. “So it’s still a big concern that people are being properly treated.”
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, who attended the event, said he remembers when there were one or two funerals a week for individuals who’d died of AIDS. While treatment has improved greatly, he said, it’s still something people need to understand.
“An indiscretion in high school shouldn’t result in death,” he said.
From the beginning, Guardian said, it was always difficult finding support for anti-HIV initiatives. As funding sources diminish, he said, organizations such as the South Jersey AIDS Alliance need to look further afield.
“We have to go back to people and the private sector,” he said.
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
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