This Sunday, Oct. 20, nearly 15,000 people will assemble on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to participate in an event of crucial importance to Philadelphians living with HIV and AIDS.
It’s the annual AIDS Walk Philly, now in its 27th year, which raises funds for HIV prevention, public awareness and care services.
Starting at 9 a.m., participants can choose either to walk a 12K route or run along the 5K route.
But Tristan Ruby of Fishtown will be there long before 9 a.m. And even though he won’t be walking or running, his volunteer role is an important once.
Inside a large white tent, he’ll be on hand to supervise the donations that participants have collected from their sponsors. A longtime volunteer with the AIDS Fund, the organization that sponsors the event, he’s participated in almost every walk since 1999. He now serves as coordinator for donations, supervising 30 other volunteers who help collect donations and process credit card donations.
“We get to meet the walkers and interact with them,” he says. “It’s great to see people very excited and motivated.”
Each participant is requested to make a minimum pledge of $50.
But some raise far more than that. The volunteers purposely have varied noisemakers on hand, such as whistles and bells. “When there’s a donation of $500 or more, they’ll use the noisemakers and then the whole tent applauds,” relates Ruby. “We want to show our appreciation and encourage people who have worked so hard to raise funds.”
He, too, is one of those who works hard. This Sunday, he’ll report to the tent by 5:30 a.m. He makes sure everything is ready and then, throughout the morning, he supervises the volunteers who will collect the donations from the walkers.
He’s still in the tent at 7:30 a.m. when the reading of the names of AIDS victims begins on the steps of the Art Museum. Any name submitted by someone local is read. These names are solemnly read by 30 different readers. There are so many names that a full hour is set aside for this tradition.
Then, after a brief opening ceremony, the walk itself begins. 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 do the AIDS Run, a 10 K run that is USA Track and Field certified.
The event brings together friends, families, co-workers and classmates. Some are regular participants. “We see familiar faces who return year after year,” says Ruby.
Often walkers organize themselves into a team. Some teams are from area schools; others work for companies. “Some companies will match whatever the walkers will raise,” says Ruby. “I’ve seen donations of $2000, $3000—even as high as $10,000. People really work hard for this.”
He’s well aware that this money is for a cause that is still urgent. “The epidemic of HIV and AIDS is not over- not by any stretch of the imagination,” says Ruby. An estimated 30,000 people in the Philadelphia are living with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) . And more than one million in the U.S. are living with HIV or AIDS. It’s estimated that almost 50,000 will become infected this year. Indeed, every nine and a half minutes, someone is infected.
In the Greater Philadelphia area, 30,000 people are living with HIV and AIDS. “The funds we raise go to help them,” says Ruby. These funds stay in the Greater Philadelphia region. They go towards care services, HIV prevention and education, and public awareness.
The participants know they are walking — or running — for a good cause. Whether they walk in teams or with friends, or on their own, it’s a spirited event. And even though Ruby is busy in the tent throughout the morning- he still feels very much involved.
“Every interaction I have with someone walking is special,” he says. “Everyone has a different reason for why they walk. Some walk in remembrance of a victim. They often tell their personal stories, which is very touching. They all bring their excitement and passion.”
Ruby himself did not have any friend or family member who died of AIDS. “But I knew so many other people who did, so this was a way of giving back,” he says about why he got involved in the AIDS Fund in l997. He’s been an active volunteer ever since, and served a six year term as a board member.
At the annual AIDS walk, he’s been coordinator of the donation tent since 2007. His partner, Tim Logue, shares his commitment and works with him in the tent.
Ruby’s full time work relates to HIV prevention. He’s director of Plain Talk Philly, a teen pregnancy prevention initiative of the Public Health Management Corporation. “ We run free education programs for parents and young people,” he explains. “We educate about sexually transmitted diseases and one of our goals is to reduce HIV infection as well as teen pregnancy.”
But however busy he is with this work, volunteering for the AIDS Walk is an important commitment. And he’s looking forward to his participation once again this Sunday.
“By the end, I’m usually exhausted, but it’s absolutely worth it,” he says. “The energy I get from all the participants keeps me going strong. It’s always a wonderful experience.”
To register online as a walker, runner or volunteer for the AIDS Walk this Sunday, contact AIDS Fund at 215-731-9255 or www.aidsfundphilly.org.