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AIDS Walk L.A. turns 25, and he's been there every step

Over the years, Don Foley has seen the march grow in size, diversity and optimism.

October 19, 2009|Gerrick D. Kennedy

Don Foley made his first AIDS Walk Los Angeles 25 years ago, when the annual event first started. And he hasn't missed a one.

On Sunday, Foley, 79, joined 30,000 others who walked the 6.2-mile route through West Hollywood to raise money and awareness to fight AIDS.

While some marchers hoisted signs high into the air and chanted, Foley, moving with the others along Melrose Avenue, reflected on how much has changed over the years.

Decades ago, there "wasn't much to do those days except watch your friends die," Foley said. "It's sad. One day your friends would tell you they were HIV-positive, and the next day you're at their funeral."

But now, with progress being made in treating those with the virus and with better understanding among the general population, he sees reason for optimism.

"It's nice seeing all these people. I think the first year there was maybe 4,000 people -- mostly all gay," said Foley, who is gay. "No one wanted to be associated with us back then. But this is a good mix of people."

He remembers taking his nephew, who was then in the late stages of AIDS, to the AIDS Walk in a wheelchair. He and his sister took turns pushing. Foley wanted his nephew, who would succumb to the effects of the disease in 1998, to experience the walk.

Foley said watching the spread of the disease in the 1980s was both scary and eye-opening. He lost at least 30 friends, including an ex-lover.

For the last six years, Foley has been a "star walker" -- one who raises at least $1,000. He collected $1,400 from family and friends this year and wore all the pins he has earned from the walks. Throughout the day people went out of their way to pose for pictures with him and applaud him.

Foley has long been active in the gay community, and he keeps a folder of memories tucked away in his nightstand. The memorabilia and newspaper clippings include items from the 1970s about his running for a seat on the county Democratic Central Committee, registering voters as they went in and out of gay clubs and being named volunteer of the year by the Stonewall Democratic Club.

Foley is modest about his achievements, but Craig Miller, founder and producer of the walk, praised his dedication.

"For Don as an individual to walk with us in 1985 took courage," Miller said. "To go around to his friends and co-workers and just ask to be sponsored really was an act of courage. They very well may have had the reaction of, 'Oh, do you have AIDS? Maybe I shouldn't be working with you.' "

This year's walk, which benefits AIDS Project Los Angeles, raised $3,146,206, funds that executive director Craig E. Thompson said are crucial. The organization lost $1.6 million in funding as the result of state budget cuts.

Darryl Stephens, best known for his role on the television show "Noah's Arc," said that with the passage of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, and budget cuts in HIV/AIDS-related funding, the state had taken a step backward.

"We're in an interesting point in history. California's budgets were slashed, AIDS funding [in the state] was slashed, and we have the issue of gay marriage on the table. It's important to stay visible," the 35-year-old actor said. "We have to work that much harder."

As Foley crossed the finish line, he dabbed a little bit of sweat from his brow. He said he was tired yet exuberant.

"Hopefully I don't have to do this for another 25 years," he said. "They need to find a cure for this thing."

Then Foley went home, opting to skip the celebration afterward. He had done his part.

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gerrick.kennedy@latimes.com

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