ORLANDO | The Hope & Help Center of Central Florida returns with their annual AIDS Walk on Feb. 3 at the Walt Disney Amphitheater at Lake Eola Park in Downtown Orlando.
Hope & Help moved the event, typically held in the morning, to an evening time last year which proved a huge success, according to Joshua J. Myers, Hope & Help’s community developmental director.
“We received an overwhelmingly positive response to moving the walk to the evening,” Myers says. “Getting up at 5:00 a.m. to walk around the lake, even though it is beautiful and for a good cause, was tough for some, and others would come do the walk and then leave and we wouldn’t see them again.”
Last year’s inaugural twilight event had more than 700 walkers and raised nearly $60,000, all of which goes back to those affected by HIV and AIDS right here in Central Florida through Hope & Help programs.
“These funds will enable us to increase the number of free HIV tests we can offer,” Myers says. “We will also be able to increase not only the number of support groups we offer but also increase the quality of those groups.”
This year, Hope & Help is aiming to raise $50,000 in funds from the AIDS Walk. That figure is a bit lower than what the organization collected last year, but Myers says their estimates are based on the fact that they are running the event earlier in the year than usual.
“We moved the event up this year, from April to February,” Myers says.”In planning out this year’s fundraising we realized there’s a lot of competing events, especially on the weekends this spring, so we wanted to be smart about that.”
Myers says Hope & Help is looking at several opportunities they have to hold other community-based, fundraising events throughout the rest of the year.
More events not only help to raise funds for HIV/AIDS services but they also raise awareness and education opportunities, something Myers says is vital to the community in Orlando and throughout the entire state.
“Florida is number one in the nation for most new HIV and AIDS cases,” Myers says. “That is astronomical. Orlando is number six as far as cities in the U.S. Two other Florida cities also appear in the top 10: Jacksonville and Miami. We have an obligation to the community to continue to raise awareness and funds to stop these new infections.”
According to Myers, the first place to start is with the youth in Florida’s public school system.
“We don’t do enough in education,” he says. “There needs to be more of a push to talk about HIV in the school systems, and not just HIV but all the accoutrements associated with its rise, [one of] those being self-esteem for our young boys and girls who are willing to compromise with their sexual partners because they are afraid of losing their relationship. We want the kids to know that they need to put their health and life first.”
Myers says the time of hiding behind our conservative views on sex needs to end now, especially in the nine southeastern state, the so-called Bible Belt of America, where 50 percent of the country’s new HIV infections come from.
“Everyone needs to know the risks and they need to get tested,” Myers says.
Hope & Help tested more than 60 individuals at last year’s AIDS Walk and they will have free HIV testing out there once again this year. Along with the testing bus, the event will feature food trucks, specialty drinks sponsored by Tito’s Vodka and a few dozen vendors with free gifts and giveaways. The event will have a kid’s zone as well with a bounce house and face painting.
Something else they have this year: a theme.
“The theme this year is ‘Celebrity,’” Myers says. “We are encouraging people to come out dressed as their favorite celebrity. We want them to be creative and just have fun with it.”
If you would like to register for the Orlando AIDS Walk, either as a single walker or as a team, visit AIDSWalkOrlando.org or call 407-645-2577, ext. 110.
(Above image of 2017 Orlando AIDS Walk by Jake Stevens.)