The counting is not done, but it appears as though the 20th anniversary AIDS Walk, across Capitol Hill on Sept. 9, will reach its $850,000 goal.
"The walk went incredibly well," said Tina Podlowdowski, executive director of the Lifelong AIDS Alliance. "We think we made it. [The total] has been growing steadily over the past three years. This is my third walk as executive director."
Slightly less than 6,000 people took part in the walk, making it the most successful walk in the last five years. The walk is the largest annual fundraiser for the Lifelong AIDS Alliance, the Capitol Hill-based organization that provides services and support each year to more than 9,000 victims of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Seattle and King County.
Although the walk has been downtown in previous years, this year the walk traversed Capitol Hill, beginning and ending in Volunteer Park.
"We were on the Hill last year too," said Podlowdowski. "This is our neighborhood, where we are as a foundation." Lifelong's office is at 1002 E. Seneca St. She added that the organization employs 85 people, which makes it one of Capitol Hill's largest employers. Also, AIDS Walk participants each receive a book of coupons redeemable at various Capitol Hill businesses for discounts, which helps the local economy.
Podlowdowski estimated 40 to 50 percent of Lifelong's clients are residents of the greater Capitol Hill area.
"Much of it is because they can get services on the Hill," she explained. She said 80 percent of the foundation's clients live on less than $15,000 per year, yet AIDS medications typically cost $1,500 to $5,000 per month. The drugs do not cure AIDS, they simply prolong life, but the existence of drug therapies for AIDS have given many people the idea that the AIDS epidemic is over.
It is not. The epidemic continues with 50 percent of new infections in people who are less than 25 years old.
"Young people just aren't getting the message anymore that AIDS kills," Podlowdowski said.
Official government emphasis and funding is aimed at an "abstinence only" message: That people won't get sexually transmitted diseases if they don't have sex. While undeniably true, such a notion is naïve at best.
"Abstinence only doesn't work," said Podlowdowski with some heat.
AIDS Walk money is particularly important because it comes without strings, unlike the government money that makes up the bulk of the organization's $15 million annual budget.
"Unlike government services, it does not come with restrictions; so we can do the work we need to do, not the work we are told to do," Podlowdowski said. That money can be used on public health messages beyond pleas for abstinence. Last year the Alliance delivered 380,000 sex messages. One of the goals is to let people know that AIDS is not just in Asia and Africa, it is in everybody's neighborhood.
"AIDS is now the leading killer of African-American women between the ages of 24 and 35," Podlowdowski said. It is not something that is widely discussed because there is still a strong stigma about AIDS, especially in faith-based communities and among people of color.
"People think it doesn't happen to them, which is nuts!" Podlowdowski declared.
The stigma of AIDS is particularly troubling. Podlowd-owski pointed out that when a woman has breast cancer her family and friends tend to rally around and become highly supportive. When someone has AIDS, many family members and friends melt away.
"This is the place they turn to," she said. "We become their family."
Podlowdowski, who has an 11-year-old daughter, said that AIDS education should actually begin in middle school, though it might be difficult to attract grant funding to reach an audience that young.
"We want funding to make tools for parents to talk to kids and talk to other parents," Podlowdowski said. Children are constantly bombarded by sexual messages on television and in the movies. When they become mature enough to understand those messages and act on their urges, they need to have good information before they become active.
"When they become sexually active they have no clue, because they've never been taught," Podlowdowski said. Such ignorance helps spread the epidemic.
During her tenure as executive director, Podlowdowski has been working toward four goals: caring for people, stopping the epidemic, changing government [primarily in the way it perceives and approaches the AIDS epidemic], and creating community.
"I think we're doing great caring for people, despite the changes in government funding," Podlowdowski said. Besides helping with medical bills, the foundation works with the Capitol Hill Housing Project, Plymouth Housing and AIDS Housing of Washington to make sure that the epidemic victims have affordable housing. Lifelong takes meals to shut-ins and keeps communications open between the larger community and epidemic victims.
"I wouldn't say it has been difficult, but it is challenging," she said of her job. "We face something different every day."
Maybe not difficult for her, but fighting AIDS on the front lines is not something that just anyone can do.
"It is as simple as caring for someone with a life threatening illness and stripping away the stigma of it," she said.
Freelance writer Korte Brueckman lives on Capitol Hill and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.