Rhode Island’s 28th Walk for Life Remembers Those Lost to AIDS
Hundreds of participants will gather at the Rhode Island State House in Providence on Sept. 28 for the annual AIDS Walk for Life. Leading them through the 2.5-mile course are Guy Abelson and Roz Rustigian, two veterans in the fight against HIV/AIDS. They've been activists since the epidemic became an identified public health crisis in the 1980s.
"As leaders of the Walk, Guy and I will not compete, but rather collaborate and hope to have the strongest team in the history of this event!" said Rustigian. "We're putting a challenge out there, and hope many will try to beat us!"
Abelson has served on AIDS Project Rhode Island's Board of Directors for more than 20 years. Rustigian is the owner of Rustigian Rugs in Providence and is a former Board Member of APRI. Abelson and Rustigian have helped raised thousands of dollars for HIV/AIDS prevention and education efforts over the years.
The theme for this year's Walk for Life, emceed by NBC 10's anchor and health reporter Barbara Morse Silva, is: Prevention is the Solution! Reflecting that theme, there will be free, anonymous rapid HIV testing available. Participants can also look forward to free chair massages, Starbucks coffee, food and other giveaways at this rain or shine event.
Benefitting AIDS Project Rhode Island, a division of Family Service of Rhode Island, along with various partner agencies, the AIDS Walk for Life is the area's largest event dedicated to raising awareness and funds for HIV prevention and testing, and providing care for people living with HIV/AIDS.
When the AIDS epidemic began in the early '80s, 1981, Abelson quickly lost a dozen friends to AIDS, saying, "The whole group I used to hang with are gone. They were wiped out. There was nothing to help them."
AIDS also profoundly impacted Rustigian, who lost five close friends to the disease.
"They were vital, healthy people," Rustigian recalled. "They were artistic, fun-loving, proactive professionals and business owners."
Activists Worry About Rising Rates of HIV
With the advent of protease inhibitors, people with HIV began surviving and are now able to live relatively normal lives. But those who are taking drugs to help them live longer are paying a steep price. Abelson noted the average lifetime cost for medications prescribed to HIV-positive individuals adds up to a whopping $380,000.
The Walk allows them to help raise funds for care, to mourn the many friends who succumbed to the disease, and also to educate young people so they will not have to live with HIV.
This is why the surge in HIV infections among gay and bisexual men is so alarming to Rustigian and Abelson. The increased lifespans of those living with HIV may be contributing to the nonchalant attitudes the younger generation has about having unsafe sex.
Abelson said men who engage in unprotected sex have a "false sense of security. They haven’t experienced death. Seeing a friend die changes you for a lifetime. "
Rustigian praised the work of APRI and the state’s other AIDS service organization, AIDS Care Ocean State, for the treatment and services they provide for those living with HIV/AIDS. Both Abelson and Rustigian believe strongly in the importance of prevention education, which they believe will help reduce the rate of possible HIV infections.
"We think that it is important to highlight the issue of HIV/AIDS because generations of kids did not live through the fear and death of the 1980s and ’90s. They need to be taught that it remains a public health issue," said Rustigian. "And there is no comfort in being straight with regards to this disease -- it can affect anyone."
Currently, new HIV infections are highest among men who have sex with men (MSM) of color. In 2011 there were 97 new HIV infections reported to the Rhode Island Department of Health, down from 106 new HIV infections reported in 2010. An estimated 3,800 to 4,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS in Rhode Island.
APRI Finds New Headquarters
APRI is currently moving its 20 employees and volunteers from its 404 Wickenden Street offices to a former medical building at 9 Pleasant Street, just up from North Main Street in the Mount Hope neighborhood.
"We’re excited about the move, which will give us much better space to care for the people we serve, and is easily available by bus too," said Tom Bertrand, MPH, AIDS Project RI’s executive director.
The organization is planning a formal grand opening in the fall. AIDS Project RI offers an array of services to prevent the spread of HIV, facilitate HIV testing, and care for people living with HIV/AIDS. Services include case management, emergency financial assistance, mental health counseling and psychiatric care, HIV testing and more. AIDS Project RI serves more than a thousand people a year.
The 28th Annual AIDS Walk for Life will step off at 9 a.m. on Sept. 28. For more information about the Walk for Life, visit www.aidsprojectri.org To make a donation, visit http://www.firstgiving.com/aidswalkri/2013