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CALIFORNIA

AIDS Walk L.A. unites, inspires

More than 30,000 participants in West Hollywood raise more than $3 million for those with the disease.

October 17, 2011|Hailey Branson-Potts
  • Heather Kolesar of Palmdale reaches for the balloons marking the AIDS Walk Los Angeles finish line Sunday. The 27th annual fundraiser drew about 30,000 people and raised more than $3 million.
Heather Kolesar of Palmdale reaches for the balloons marking the AIDS Walk… (Christina House, For The…)

Lynnea Lawson and her friend Mimi Hill, both 26, met two decades ago at a camp for children with HIV and AIDS. They have remained friends ever since.

On Sunday, they were among more than 30,000 people who participated in the 27th annual AIDS Walk Los Angeles. The event raises money for AIDS Project Los Angeles and related service organizations. This year's event raised more than $3 million.

Hill -- a longtime participant who, like Lawson, was born with HIV -- wore a hand-painted white T-shirt with "AIDS Walk 2011 -- We've got to keep fighting" in big black letters.

The crowd at AIDS Walk always inspires her, Hill said. She walks for the people whose names appear on the back of her shirt. They are friends who died of AIDS.

She calls them her soldiers and says she's still fighting the war against AIDS. Someday, she and Lawson said, it will be won.

"People don't say 'cure' much; they say 'treatment,'" Lawson said. "But I believe we can do it."

This year marks 30 years since the AIDS virus was reported in five young gay men in Los Angeles. Over the years, more than 32,000 people have died of the disease in the county, according to health officials. Another 63,000 area residents live with HIV or AIDS.

Watching participation in the AIDS Walk fundraising event grow over the last three decades is "bittersweet," said Craig Miller, founder and producer of the event.

"The bitter part is that we are 30 years into this epidemic and we still need to have an AIDS Walk," Miller said. "Back in 1985 we were hopeful that this emergency would run its course faster than it has. But the sweet part is that there are actually more people than ever willing to band together, raise funds and walk together."

Getting people tested, linking them to treatment and keeping them on their medications are major goals of AIDS Project Los Angeles, said Craig Thompson, executive director of the organization.

"There is a misconception that everyone responds well and has access to medical care and medical treatments," Thompson said. "That's a simplistic view. We've in no way cured this disease."

LaVera Anom, 37, who is HIV positive, and the younger of her two sons, 6-year-old Kwame, joined Lawson and Hill on Sunday's 6.2-mile walk through West Hollywood and the surrounding area.

Anom said she was 16 weeks pregnant with her son when she was diagnosed in 2004. "I was scared, petrified," she said.

She first went to AIDS Project Los Angeles as a volunteer, Anom said. But she said she was so afraid of the stigma of being HIV positive that she would not sign her name in at the door and would not acknowledge that she had the disease.

Worried about her family's struggle to pay medical bills and keep their house, Anom eventually became a client of AIDS Project Los Angeles, which helped with her housing and medical costs.

Living with HIV has been emotional, said Anom, who struggles with depression and low self-esteem. She is waiting to explain her illness to Kwame and to tell her 17-year-old son, who lives in Georgia. She hopes to tell him in person. Her husband knows about her HIV status, she said.

Over the years, Anom, who is working on her master's degree in counseling and psychology, has thrown herself into advocacy work. She regularly speaks about having HIV and continues to volunteer with AIDS Project Los Angeles.

She even addressed Sunday's crowd.

"It's like these people are walking for me," she said afterward. "People are walking to make sure I get my medicine so I can stay alive and so that I can keep my housing."

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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