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AIDS Walk Highlights Territory's Growing Epidemic

Dec. 3, 2006 — More than 60 participants walked, ran and strolled early Saturday morning during the 12th annual VICARE (V.I. Community AIDS Resource and Education) AIDS Walkathon: A Walk for Life.
VICARE's annual five-mile walk to increase awareness of the nationwide epidemic began 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning as the sun finally rose in the sky. Participants gathered at the Carl and Marie Lawaetz museum in Frederiksted on the outskirts of the picturesque rain forest.
Bruce Smail, VICARE executive director, thanked participants for donating their time and money. Accompanied by 10-month old boxer puppies, Biko and Miko, Smail told participants, "Remember what we are doing here." Smail said the walk was in honor of those who have died from the disease and those living with HIV/AIDS.
Mark Genovesio, VICARE program director and walkathon organizer, said the rain forest locale was perfect for reflection and considered the walk challenging. "Using the rain forest makes it a personal event for the island," Genovesio said. "It is important, too, because the situation here on this island is so tragic." According to Health Department figures, the territory leads the nation in the number of AIDS cases per-capita.
Genovesio had been up since 3 a.m. that morning eager to set up and make sure the walk was ready for participants who came out to show their support. The trek through the rain forest included three water stations for humans and animals and promised the beauty and awe of the rain forest expanse.
Although Genovesio commented on the beauty of seeing the sun rise over the hills of the museum, he emphasized the walk was important because of the seriousness of the epidemic in our community.
"The old expression, 'Silence equals Death,' is true here," he said. "People don't want to talk about sex, safe sex, men having sex with men, or women having sex with women." Genovesio said there is an "epidemic on this island of men stepping out on their wives, which means safer sex is even more important."
Iris Hall, a VICARE staff member, expressed outrage over the absence of elected officials at the walk. "For us to be No. 1 per capita [in AIDS/HIV infection rates]," Hall said, "I am ashamed not to see more representation [from government officials]." Hall said she was astonished no one had come out because, according to her, the issue of AIDS and HIV is a political one.
Throughout the crowd there was laughter as participants mingled, waited for the walk to begin. Dogs and masters alike ambled through the crowd sipping morning coffee, eating muffins and enjoying an early morning in paradise.
VICARE staff member Mary Roebuck remembered the first walk being long and not having many participants.
"As the years go by, the numbers get bigger and bigger," Roebuck said.
VICARE Board President Sandra Phaire said the first walk was from Estate Grove Place to Buddhoe Park in Frederiksted. Phaire said from its inception the walk was organized as a time for reflection and to raise money in support of those who are HIV positive or are living with AIDS.
"The walk gives people a chance to come out and support their peers," she said.
"It's a global thing and I want to be involved," said Good Hope School graduate Kayme Canii, who got six of her friends out of their beds early Saturday because she wanted all of them to show their support. She said she even left threatening messages for one friend who tried to avoid waking up from a long night of fun.
Canii's friend, Edna Richardson, said she got one hour's sleep after going out the night before; but was up waiting for Canii's call early anyway. "I have not known someone personally affected by the disease," Richardson said, adding she hoped her participation would help someone she knew who didn't know his or her status to find out.
The Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority was on hand to help VICARE members register walkers, as they have for the past three years. Volunteer Gizette Thomas said being a part of events like the walk is a part of the service organization's health target area. Thomas said there have been more than 200 participants in the last years.
Although the turnout may have been smaller than in prior years, staff and volunteers remember each walk fondly, never forgetting the importance of the day. Staff member Casey Cuffy remembered rain in previous years didn't stop determined participants from trudging along for those who may not be able to anymore.
Participants were asked to donate $10 for their registration and were able to be counted as individuals or teams. For more information on HIV testing, contact VICARE at 692-9111 or visit their website.
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