When the annual AIDS Walk Philly takes place this Sunday, Oct. 20, Robb Reichard of Wissinoming will be there — just as he’s been every year since his first walk in 1988.
As executive director of the AIDS Fund, which sponsors the event, he’s devoted to the AIDS cause and is well aware of its crucial importance.
“With the advent of better treatments, people think the AIDS epidemic is over, but it’s not,” he said. “So we need everyone’s help, now more than ever.”
This year’s walk will bring together almost 15,000 people. The money raised will go toward care services, HIV prevention and education, and public awareness — all with a local focus.
“The funds we raise during AIDS Walk Philly stay right here in the Greater Philadelphia region, where those dollars can really make a difference,” said Reichard, noting that an estimated 30,000 people in our area are living with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS).
And more than 1 million in the United States are living with HIV/AIDS. It’s estimated that almost 50,000 will become infected this year. Indeed, every nine and a half minutes, someone is infected with HIV.
The AIDS Walk Philly & AIDS Run Philly — its official name — is a high-profile event each year. Last year’s walk drew 15,000 and raised $375,000. Planning for this major event is a yearlong process, and as the date gets closer, Reichard cheerfully admits his schedule becomes “totally crazy.” Working with a staff of four, he arranges for city permits, works with designers on T-shirts, posters and buttons, and processes thousands of registration cards.
Then, there are arrangements for the delivery of 25 squares from the renowned AIDS memorial quilt. Portions of it travel throughout the country each year. The quilt will be one highlight of Sunday’s event. Each square contains panels that memorialize the life of an AIDS victim and has been sewn by loved ones of the victim. The entire quilt — 44,000 panels in all — is housed in Atlanta. But 25 squares will be sent to Reichard’s office in time for Sunday’s AIDS walk.
Each of the squares contains eight smaller panels, so in all, the portion of the quilt displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art will memorialize 200 AIDS victims, many of them from the Philadelphia area. It will be carefully laid at the base of the museum, so visitors can get a close-up look at the panels.
“Every panel is unique, and people put an incredible amount of time and energy into making them,” said Reichard. “With every panel, you get a real sense of the person who is being memorialized.”
Over the years, he’s seen how deeply moved friends and relatives are to see the panel of their loved one on display. The quilt was first displayed in 2004, which was the year Reichard became executive director of the AIDS Fund. It was his initiative that led to this annual display of the quilt at the AIDS Walk.
The quilt is not the only way that the AIDS Walk will memorialize victims. At 7:30 a.m. on the art museum steps, there will be a reading of the names of AIDS victims, including those honored on the quilt and others who were Philadelphians.
“Any name submitted by someone who is local will be read,” said Reichard.
He’ll be one of 30 persons who will solemnly read the names.
“It’s one of my traditions every year,” he said. “The names include people I’ve known and lost. To me, one important reason we come together each year is to remember and honor those we’ve lost. We can’t forget them.”
There are so many names that a full hour is set aside for the reading.
“And we can barely get all the names read in that time,” said Reichard.
When the reading of names ends, the opening ceremony officially begins. That’s when Reichard gives a welcome speech.
“I thank people for being there and for the funds they’ve raised,” he said. “And I remind them of why we’re here: it’s because the epidemic continues to ravage our communities.”
At 9 a.m., after the opening ceremony, the walk will begin at the Eakins Oval, in front of the steps of the art museum. The 12K route goes up Kelly Drive, crosses Falls Bridge and then continues down Martin Luther King Drive back to Eakins Oval. The more athletic participants can do the AIDS Run — a 10K run that is USA Track and Field certified.
The event brings together friends, families, co-workers and classmates who often organize themselves into teams. This Sunday, one team will be the friends, staff and customers of Daly’s Irish Pub, at 4201 Comly St. Some are walking, some running, and others are volunteers collecting donations.
Whether they walk in teams, pairs or solo, it’s a spirited event, just as it was for Reichard’s first walk in 1988. He was then housing coordinator for Peirce College, and offered to put together a team of Peirce students. Although he started as a volunteer, he became so involved that, by 1999, he was appointed associate director of the AIDS Fund. Then came his promotion to executive director in 2004.
The fund was established mainly to raise money through the AIDS Walk, but it has expanded to include other activities such as educational outreach. Reichard often visits schools and colleges to talk about HIV prevention. For instance, on Nov. 15, he’ll be speaking at First Philadelphia Charter School.
“Each year, we have new young people who need the information to protect themselves from being infected,” he said.
But in recent weeks, he’s been totally focused on preparation for the big event Sunday, working nonstop to make sure everything is ready.
“We’re absolutely exhausted when it’s over,” he said. “But it’s a good feeling to see thousands of people coming together for this. It leaves me feeling that we’ve made a difference in people’s lives.” ••
To register for the AIDS Walk this Sunday, contact AIDS Fund at 215-731-9255 or www.aidsfundphilly.org