“We Shall Overcome,” sung by the Twin Cities Gay Mens’ Chorus, blended with brightly colored T-shirts and the smell of barbecues as walkers took their places at the starting line before the 10th annual Minnesota AIDS Walk.
A sea of about 15,000 walkers and 600 volunteers met at Minnehaha Park on Sunday to raise people’s awareness of AIDS and also money for AIDS programs. The participants ranged from sorority sisters to people infected with the disease, but their goals were the same.
Russ King, communication coordinator of the Minnesota AIDS Project, said he thinks the walkers can reach the $1 million goal.
“Visibility is way up and it’s affecting more and more people,” he said. “Registration has been busy, and donations will trickle in for the next few days from people who couldn’t make it.”
Donations are distributed to the project and 25 other AIDS-prevention and support services in the Twin Cities. Last year 14,000 walkers raised about $800,000.
He said the threatening clouds and light rain Sunday didn’t dampen the spirits of walkers, and many were first-timers.
Jen Johnson, a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, completed her first walk Sunday with about 70 other women from her sorority and Pi Beta Phi Sorority. The sophomore in the College of Liberal Arts said she has volunteered with HIV and AIDS organizations in the past and felt that the walk would be a good way for more of her friends to get involved.
“This is really overwhelming,” Johnson said of the experience of participating in the walk. “I heard it was crazy and it is.”
Johnson, who was sponsored by her parents’ $25 donation, said she approaches AIDS by educating herself and people who are close to her first, then branches out to support others. She said this summer she hopes to work with childr en infected with AIDS.
“Watching other people work to educate others helps me remain positive,” she said. “I try to find a good focus, a positive focus. I try to be strong and enthusiastic for them.”
Kelly Blanchard, team coordinator for Kappa Alpha Theta, said her team’s goal wasn’t to raise money but to get people involved.
“I didn’t set a goal for money this year, but next year I think we will,” Blanchard said. “I think people will be affected more than they realize. People will really remember this.”
Although they are all students at the University, the members of the sororities’ team don’t know Jonathan Hall, an off-and-on student at the University. Nonetheless, they walked for about two hours to help him and others overcome the disease.
Hall, 29, is HIV-positive and said he’ll never forget his first AIDS walk six years ago, mostly because of the spontaneous support of a total stranger.
“I did my first AIDS Walk shortly after my diagnosis,” he said. “I wanted to regain my strength and it was one of the first days I had been able to go outside since I had been so sick. I walked the whole walk.
“The opening ceremonies brought me to tears. A man — a stranger — came up to me and gave me a big hug,” he said. “From the diagnosis, to dealing with hostility, to a stranger giving me a hug. It was amazing.”
He said the support he’s received from AIDS walkers, his family and God has helped him turn the disease into something positive. Hall grew up in a Lutheran family, and still belongs to the church.
Hall was infected with HIV when he was 23. He said even though he knew about HIV and AIDS, he didn’t think it would affect him because in Minnesota he felt safe, even though he participated in high-risk behavior.
After drinking four Long Island ice teas and experimenting with marijuana for the first time, he chose to have unprotected sex with a man he met at the Saloon in Minneapolis. He said it was his first and last sexual experience.
“The choice I made to consume led me to open myself up to unprotected sex,” he said. “Even though I knew it was high-risk behavior, this is not L.A. or New York. I thought, ‘What are the chances?’ Because it didn’t affect me, or infect me, I didn’t feel the need to be educated.”
Four months after he was exposed to the virus, Hall became severely ill while on vacation in California, and for several months the reason for his illness was unclear. During the four months he was ill, losing 40 pounds and spending two weeks in the hospital, doctors tested Hall for several diseases. The last test his doctors did, an HIV test, uncovered the answer.
“The doctor called me and said I should bring my parents,” Hall said. “At that point I guess I knew.”
He asked his mother into the exam room and told her he was HIV-positive. She told him something he said he’ll never forget.
“She said, ‘God isn’t finished with you yet,'” Hall said.
Hall, who lives in Minneapolis, said he hopes to incorporate his love of creative writing, drama, speech-communication, vocal performance and visual arts into a major called “artistic persuasion” to help him best use his voice. Until he decides specifically what he’ll pursue, Hall said his goal is to “inspire and encourage.”
He said his goal has been easier to attain lately because his health has been very good. He’s currently taking five HIV-related drugs, an “AIDS cocktail,” which has made the virus in his blood undetectable by measurements currently available.
Hall speaks about HIV and AIDS to various groups about three times a month when he’s not working in the fine chocolate section of Dayton’s Marketplace. He explains how he got infected, talks about the ups and downs of his emotional and physical health and answers questions.
“I always knew I wanted to speak on something, but I didn’t know what,” he said. “Now I have something to speak about. Until I die my voice will not cease.”
His mother, Marilyn Hall, said she decided to leave the situation in God’s hands.
“Sometimes I feel he has HIV for a reason, that God wants him to talk about it,” she said. “I said to him, ‘You must use this in a positive way now, Jon. This is something you can do.'”
Hall said when he speaks to groups he tries to impress on them the importance of remaining strong in one’s faith. He said though there have been several times when he’s felt anger and depression, he tries to remember to use his gifts to overpower his weaknesses.
“It’s so important to not discount what it is that you have while you’re here or you will waste your life. I’ve realized that all my life, but I haven’t always practiced it,” he said. “There are times when I let go of the rope or slid down the pole, but I’m stronger than whatever it is that comes my way. God gives me that strength.”
He also explained that he feels God working through others to support him. Surrounding himself with people of similar beliefs helps him strengthen his own faith, but he said he also feels a commitment to recognizing needs of others and speaking to people who may not want to hear his message. He said most often, the people who he really needs to reach are the ones most unwilling to attend a lecture.
“I’m beyond telling people what they want to hear, and it might be a bitter pill for them to swallow,” he said. “Of course it’s easier not to bother, but … the things that are of most difficulty are of most worth. Things that are hard to look in the face need to be looked at.”
Hall’s sister Nancy Hall, with whom he lives, said she found acceptance of the virus a challenge.
“Diversity is a lot simpler from a distance,” she said. “It didn’t bother me to know about people with AIDS, but it really hits home when it’s in your family.” She said in the beginning she had a fear of catching the disease. Sharing eating utensils, using the same toilet and drinking out of the same glasses made her uncomfortable.
“AIDS seemed dirty to me, but I had to realize that was my problem. Five years later I don’t even think about it,” she said. She said her faith has provided her with a strong focus. “Without Christ, probably our whole family would have been destroyed. We wouldn’t have had a center to go back to.”
She said her brother helps her, and others, maintain a better perspective on life.
“He’s more grounded. I’m always in a hurry and he takes time to enjoy the moment,” she said. “He can slow me down and he reminds me of what’s important.”
Hall said he hopes the AIDS-walkers remember the importance of the event. He said the walk provides both short- and long-term support and serves as a reminder to those who aren’t affected by the virus every day. But, he said, some skew the event.
“Some go to see and be seen, like it’s a big social event,” he said. “That hurts me. They’re missing the point. But the majority are there for the cause.”
Lorraine Teel, executive director of the Minnesota AIDS Project, said the crowd 10 years ago was between 1,000 and 2,000 people. She said she hopes this year’s walkers share their experiences with friends who may join next year.
“Bring the message here today out of the park and with you,” she said.