Every year, thousands of people flock to West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard with signs, t-shirts, balloons and running shoes to walk 6.2 miles under the early morning October sun.
Fighting the good fight · Participants in the 2012 AIDS Walk Los Angeles hold up numbers signifying the total amount of funds raised. The organization has raised more than $1.7 million towards the effort from online donations this year, with more anticipated from private donors. – Courtesy of L.A. Aids Walk
The AIDS Walk Los Angeles, happening Sunday, raises money for services provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles and other AIDS service organizations throughout L.A. County. It also promotes awareness for the disease, as well as offering support and companionship as volunteers walk arm-in-arm with families who have lost loved ones as well as with patients themselves.
The event attracts a wide variety of participants, including USC students. According to the AIDS Walk registration page, there are currently 15 USC-affiliated groups signed up to walk.
One such team is USC OUTreach, a student organization that serves the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and ally community through its involvement in community service and queer issues.
For sophomore Dawson Ray, co-president of OUTreach, this year will be his second time walking in the event. Ray said he expects somewhere around 30 students from the organization to participate, which is similar to the turnout from last year.
Ray said that the one aspect of the walk he most looks forward to is meeting new people, walking alongside them and hearing their stories.
“It’s a really social event, and really uplifting for something that sounds so depressing,” Ray said.
In addition to his club obligations, Ray said his reasons for showing support for the cause are also more personal.
“Growing up, a lot of my older, gay mentors lost a lot of really good friends to the disease,” he said. “It was teachers who were talking about losing 30 friends in one year. It’s unbelievable. So when I walk, I walk for them and their loss.”
For some students, this will be their first experience with AIDS Walk.
This is the first time freshman theater major Gabriela Ortega will be taking part in any sort of fundraising event. Ortega said she is passionate about being involved with this cause, as she finds it to be an integral part of history and of the world around her.
“It’s interesting — it’s a disease that marked a generation before us,” Ortega said. “One of my idols, Freddy Mercury, died of it … It was so influential in everything — music, art and all of it. It’s something that cannot be ignored.”
Ortega’s encounter with a man who had AIDS when she was younger also propelled her interest in and empathy for the disease.
“The first time I actually interacted with someone with AIDS was outside a restaurant,” she said. “I was with my dad, and the person just needed money for medicine. Everybody else ignored him. My dad asked him, ‘Why do you need money?’ He was talking about how when he was young and stupid, he had unprotected sex and caught AIDS, and how that destroyed all of his personal relationships for a long while.”
Ortega said the man’s physically weak appearance moved her to act compassionately.
“I was really young, so I didn’t understand it, but I see this person, and he’s really skinny, but he looks normal,” Ortega said. “He’s not offensive — someone who looks really weak, but it doesn’t look like a touch from that person would kill you.”
Justin Zhang, a freshman majoring global health major, signed up for the event after seeing a flier on his RA’s door. His reasons for participating stemmed partly from his academic interest in global health.
“We’ve been talking about HIV and AIDS a lot in class, so I understand how big of an issue it is … it is a very serious disease,” Zhang said. “You read things in the paper — ‘Oh, this many people died in this accident,’ — but you don’t really reveal the emotional impact until you get a firsthand experience of it.”
Zhang said he also volunteered in hopes of challenging himself to move beyond his comfort zone and beyond the confines of the campus.
“A lot of people like myself have grown up predominantly in one of the so-called ‘suburban bubbles,’ and you’re basically unaware,” Zhang said. “It’s important to take part in these events so you become more connected with the community, and you realize, ‘Hey, there is more to the city than USC or L.A. Live.’”
Ortega echoed this sentiment, adding that it is important for students to note the difference between saying they support a cause and physically supporting it. She said that highlighting this difference and making it “distinct” would encourage more students to get involved.
“If you really feel passionately about issues around the world that affect people, why don’t you go out and say something or do something about it?” Ortega said. “Especially our generation is so influenced by the media that we hide behind that electronic stuff — we don’t actually go out and do stuff.”
Ortega said that the walk is less about fundraising than it is about the collective effort put forth by a group of people.
“Doing something about it makes you feel like you’re being active about it — not just, ‘We want your money,’” she said. “No — we actually want your awareness and your support. It’s not just about the money you raise for an organization or how well known it is, but how people feel about it and how they react to it.”
This Sunday, as volunteers march triumphantly down fan-filled streets to cross the finish line, it will be clear that USC students are not alone in their goal to be a part of something bigger than themselves and their community.
“Seeing the diversity of the people who go to the event — young people, elderly people, college students, rich college students from good families — they’re going to a walk about AIDS,” Ortega said. “It’s interesting to see different people come together. The whole image would show that this could happen to anyone.”