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'Kids Who Care' a Force at Annual AIDS Walk

October 17, 2005|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

The young team members who gathered Sunday morning before the annual AIDS Walk did not wear matching T-shirts bearing logos of corporations such as Hilton, Starbucks or DreamWorks SKG. They did not have Hollywood connections or the backing of a public relations campaign.

But in recent years these boys and girls -- students from 10 Los Angeles-area private schools including Windward, Oakwood, Montclair, Brentwood and Harvard-Westlake -- have raised more money for AIDS organizations than nearly all of the 1,000 other corporate and community teams participating in the walkathon.

"It's quite a statement about kid power, isn't it?" said Craig Miller, founder and producer of the AIDS Walk, which celebrated its 21st anniversary this year by raising more than $3 million. Organizers said as many as 25,000 people took part in the event in West Hollywood.

Last year, "Kids Who Care" raised $55,000, second only to DreamWorks' $81,700. This year, Miller said the teenagers again reached the $55,000 mark, although that number may increase as volunteers collect more money this week.

The student-led group has consistently ranked among the top 20 fundraisers for the walkathon, organizers said. Started 15 years ago by a determined 7-year-old named Leo Beckerman, Kids Who Care has raised more than $500,000 for AIDS organizations, according to the Beckerman family, of Studio City.

Since then the group has expanded to include 500 members. Beckerman, now 22, attends UC Berkeley and could not participate this year. In his place, his brother, Sammy Beckerman, 17, helped carry on the tradition.

Over the years, the students have organized and expanded. Now a team leader on each campus recruits students to raise money and walk the 10K (6.2 miles) course. Participants instant-messaged application forms to each other and promoted the event at school meetings. They drafted letters soliciting donations and sent them to friends, relatives and neighbors.

This year the team grew so big that its former sponsors -- a website, a Jewish temple and a small clothing company -- could not afford to pay for the team to wear matching T-shirts.

On Sunday, they showed up instead wearing campus T-shirts, sequined purses, flip-flops and sneakers.

At about 9:30 a.m., they stood crowded near the starting line, holding pinwheels as the tune "Good Day Sunshine" blasted on a loudspeaker and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pumped up the crowd from a stage.

Sammy recalled his older brother, Leo, giving a "very eloquent" speech from the same stage more than a decade ago. In it, Leo said the words that later became his mantra: "Even one person can make a difference." He is now studying public health and plans to visit Africa this year to work at a blood bank.

Some of the teens know people who are living with HIV and AIDS. A friend of the Beckerman family, Jeff Jenest, 53, diagnosed in 1981, was the inspiration for Leo to take up the cause.

Jenest attended Sunday's event looking healthy and vivacious.

"Leo is legend," said Jenest, who credited the group his young friend started with working tirelessly and "following through" over the years.

Some of the team members, including Sammy, have walked each year for more than a decade, becoming expert on the course and crowd. They know where to look for the drag queen cheerleaders, or the firetruck that will spray a fountain of cool water. They have walked in temperatures above 100 degrees and in pelting rain.

"We're starting," said Sammy, as the throng waddled slowly down San Vicente Boulevard like penguins. The pace quickened to a steady stroll as the crowd loosened, turning right onto Santa Monica Boulevard.

"Normally, the protesters are here," said Willie Perliter, 15, a Windward student, as they approached La Cienega Boulevard.

A few steps later a sprinkle of protesters appeared, waving signs that read: "Sinners Marching Against Aids Are Like Smokers Marching Against Lung Cancer," and "Homo Sex Is a Sin."

"You're wasting your time," one AIDS Walk participant yelled at them.

Most of the members of Kids Who Care attend campuses with predominantly liberal student bodies, said Sammy. On his campus, Oakwood School in North Hollywood, students hold town meetings twice a week to share poetry, political ideas and music. They are allowed to create their own classes, such as architecture, or German art between the World Wars. They have organized a campaign against Proposition 73, which would require parental notification before a minor girl undergoes an abortion.

"People don't think teenagers have such strong opinions about things, but so many of us are so involved," said Lauren Olson, 16, an Oakwood student who walked for the first time on Sunday, wearing flip-flops.

As the group headed east on Melrose, storm clouds thickened overhead. Near the Fairfax High School flea market, it started to drizzle. Then, heavy raindrops fell. The youngsters wrapped sweatshirts around their heads, zipped their jackets and kept walking.

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