AIDS Walk raises money and awareness in Western Mass.

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By: Tynan Power/TRT Reporter-

On Saturday, Sept. 10, over 400 people gathered in Springfield’s Forest Park to raise money and awareness for the AIDS Foundation of Western Massachusetts, Inc. (AFWM). The AIDS Walk/5K Run and Festival began with registration at 10 a.m. and continued through the afternoon.

A clear blue sky and easing of summer heat made it a good day for a run or walk, with many groups and families pushing strollers following a bit behind the runners on the same path. Craig Balderston led the race, finishing in 21:51. Melissa Madison, a first-time participant accompanied by her mother and her two children, was the first woman across the finish line, in 23:37.

While the overall number of registrants was the same as last year, AIDS Foundation Executive Director Jessica Crevier noticed a shift.

“We had a much larger number of runners this year, which is exciting,” she said.

The AIDS Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to assisting people living with HIV and AIDS in Hampden and Hampshire counties. Founded in 1993, the organization is striving to help an increased number of people dealing with financial challenges.

“In previous years, AFWM has tended to receive substantially fewer grant [applications] over the summer months. However, this summer has seen more applications than are expected in even our busiest seasons. Further, we are receiving a large number of requests from new applicants. People who have never needed assistance before are reaching out for help to make ends meet,” Crevier explained.

According to the Foundation, 100 percent of the money raised by the AIDS Walk is given back to the community. That mainly takes place in two ways: individual grants and educational programming. Individual grants provide financial assistance of up to $500 at a time to individuals in need. Since 1993, the AIDS Foundation has provided grants totaling over $750,000.

“AFWM grants can help them catch up with their rent or secure new housing,” said Crevier. “We assist with purchasing appliances, keeping utilities turned on, paying medical expenses, and other necessities for maintaining a good quality of life. As people continue to struggle financially and community services are cut, more and more people require the leg-up that the foundation can provide.”

Another way the AIDS Foundation gives back to the community is through educational programs. One such program is the AIDS kNOw More Project (AKMP), for students in middle school through college who are committed to educating themselves about HIV/AIDS — then sharing that knowledge with peers.  Participants and their advisers receive peer education training from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The group meets twice a month from 6 to 8 p.m. at the AIDS Foundation office in Springfield and members participate each year in the AIDS Walk.  Another project of the AIDS Foundation is the “Living Positive” group for men living with HIV/AIDS. The group meets on the second Wednesday of every month, 6 to 7:30 p.m., at The Research Institute in Springfield.

After the AIDS Walk, participants were treated to hot dogs and burgers, while listening to live music by the John Brandoli Band. Two vendors offered massages, while others, such as Walgreens, offered free reusable bags and other promotional items. A number of LGBTQ support and advocacy organizations were represented, including the LGBT Coalition of Western Massachusetts and Out Now.

“This was the first year that we actively sought out community vendors,” Crevier said. “It is important that people can come together and network with local organizations and businesses, and perhaps learn about some services that they might not otherwise have access to. We hope to expand upon our vendors row in coming years, and reach out to additional businesses and organizations, as well as local artisans and practitioners.”

With the annual AIDS Walk/5K Run and Festival behind them, the AIDS Foundation will soon gear up for their biggest fundraiser, a 15-year-old gala recently renamed “Viva!” — a celebration of life. Doors will open for “Viva!” at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 27, 2012, at the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House in Holyoke. Featuring live entertainment, live and silent auctions, and delicious food, the event brings out the community — to have a good time and help the AIDS Foundation in its critically important work.

“Our area has the second fastest growing rate of infection in the state,” Crevier said, “and it is our responsibility as community members to respond to this epidemic.”

To find out more about the AIDS Foundation of Western Massachusetts, visit aidsfoundationwm.org.