Several thousand people marched through downtown Washington yesterday in the 19th annual walk to raise money for the Whitman-Walker Clinic, just a day after the financially struggling nonprofit service was forced to shut its Maryland facility.
Whitman-Walker, the region's main provider of HIV/AIDS services, announced during the summer that it would close its suburban clinics because of a financial crisis caused in part by plummeting donations. The clinic's interim director, Roberta Geidner-Antoniotti, said yesterday that she feared a further shortfall because of people diverting charitable gifts to hurricane victims.
"This has been a hard year for us. Unfortunately, we did end up closing Maryland yesterday," Geidner-Antoniotti told marchers shortly before the walk started. "But we're thrilled to say we've been able to keep our Virginia site open."
She explained that governments in Northern Virginia, working with the state, have recently come up with $600,000 to maintain the clinic in Arlington for 18 months. In addition, a plan to close Whitman-Walker's food bank has been scrapped, thanks to a $500,000 donation from CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. And many patients from the Maryland clinic in Takoma Park will be able to continue their treatment at Whitman-Walker's facilities in the District, with the help of government grants, she said.
At least 3,300 people were registered for yesterday's AIDS Walk Washington, which brought in more than $400,000 in cash and pledges for the organization, organizers said. The clinic, which has an annual budget of about $28 million, holds several fundraisers each year.
On a crisp, sunny morning, participants walked along a three-mile route down Pennsylvania Avenue NW to the Capitol, pushing strollers, waving blue-and-red pompoms and carrying signs from a plethora of organizations, ranging from a George Mason University fraternity to Precious Pearlz, a group of female motorcyclists clad in black leather vests trimmed in pink.
The District's rate of HIV/AIDS is one of the highest among major U.S. cities, with an estimated one in 20 residents infected with the virus. Many people joined the walk yesterday in honor of friends or relatives who died of complications related to AIDS.
One walker was Keisha Kirkland, 31, a health care worker from Temple Hills who wore a T-shirt bearing a photo of her father, who died 11 years ago. She said she was concerned about the Whitman-Walker Clinic's financial troubles.
"That's what we're here for: to pick them up," said Kirkland, who with her family raised $1,300.
A 47-year-old patient of the clinic, who identified himself as Dan S., said he raised $1,800. But some friends, he said, didn't want to contribute because of the publicity about Whitman-Walker's troubles.
"They feel the clinic is mismanaged," said the Dupont Circle resident. He emphasized that he had received excellent treatment from Whitman-Walker for his addiction to crystal methamphetamine, a drug linked to risky sexual behavior. The clinic "has helped me, and a lot of the guys I know," said the business executive, who would not provide his last name because he didn't want colleagues to know about his drug use.
Other marchers said some friends were reluctant to donate this year because they were contributing to victims of recent national disasters, especially Hurricane Katrina.
But, said Nickie Bazell, 25, a Dupont Circle resident who works at a nonprofit that works to prevent AIDS: "This is a national disaster."
In the end, Geidner-Antoniotti said, the walk raised about as much money as it did last year.
In the early 1990s, AIDS Walk Washington was much larger, often attracting 20,000 people, organizers said. But in recent years, new drug cocktails have diminished the mortality rate among AIDS victims -- and the sense of urgency some feel about the disease. An estimated 40,000 people become infected each year with HIV in the United States.
A red ribbon is affixed to a walker's jacket before the event starts. At least 3,300 people were registered for yesterday's AIDS Walk.