Northeast Times

Lifelong devotion

Local activist is dedicated to battling AIDS epidemic.

  • A mission of hope: Wissinoming resident and executive director of the AIDS Fund Robb Reichard discusses the organization and its mission on a balcony near his office at William Way Community Center in Center City. The fund sponsors the annual AIDS Walk Philly, slated for Sunday. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Decades of dedication: Robb Reichard has participated in the AIDS Walk Philly since 1988. He started as a volunteer. In 2004, he was promoted to executive director. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • A mission of hope: Wissinoming resident and executive director of the AIDS Fund Robb Reichard discusses the organization and its mission on a balcony near his office at William Way Community Center in Center City. The fund sponsors the annual AIDS Walk Philly, slated for Sunday. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

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

You can reach at rrovner@aol.com.

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