Tuesday, May 20, 2008

AIDS Candlelight Memorial Held In Tucson - By Mark R. Kerr

More than 150 Tucsonans, straight, LGBT, young and old, HIV- and HIV+ gathered at Himmel Park Sunday, May 18 for the annual AIDS Candlelight Memorial.

This annual event is held to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS, show support for those living with or affected by and to remember those who lost their battle to this dreaded disease.

Before the Memorial, people had a chance to view the display from the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation (SAAF), marking the 27 years of AIDS, from “Patient Zero” to the term “Gay cancer,” to the discovery of the virus to the global expansion of the disease. SAAF’s time included local, national and global statistics of the disease. Also present were panels from the AIDS Quilt, remembering those Tucsonans who had died from AIDS.

Tucson was just one of more than 100 Memorials held in cities across the United States and the world. This year marked the 10th event in Tucson, in 1983, New York and San Francisco where the first cities to hold candlelight memorials.

A “Call to Gather” by Native Images Woman Drum brought people together at the amphitheater, Seh Welch, director of HIV/AIDS services and co-founder of ACT-UP, emceed reminding the crowd to “never give up” in the ongoing fight against AIDS and to “never forget” those living with or who lost their lives to the disease, echoing the theme of this year’s Memorial.

Religious blessings, prayers and chants were delivered by several Tucson and Native American religious leaders; African-American dance and stories by the Barbea Williams troupe; musical songs by Reveille Men’s Chorus and Desert Voices were performed to a grateful crowd and sharing the journey, people telling their stories about HIV/AIDS and how it affects them or affected loved ones, were part of the program.

Tucson Vice Mayor Nina Trasoff (representing Ward 6 that Himmel Park is in) and Pima County Supervisor Richard Elias (District 5) read proclamations marking May 18.

Trasoff told the crowd, "I wish we were here to only remember," and not because AIDS will claim more lives. "There is a lot to look forward to here in this community; we all get it and care passionately."

ElĂ­as said the stigma that persists in many communities prevents people from sharing their situation with others. But when brave people step forward, their actions help everyone, he said, adding that the stories people tell at the vigil are about the "people who live in our hearts. The strength of these stories will lead us to fight back against the stigma that exists today.”

Wendell Hicks, the new Executive Director of SAAF, delivered the keynote address, talking about the people, loved ones and friends he knew with AIDS and those who had passed away, stating that he got involved because he had to because “it’s my place.” Hicks urged the crowd to get more aware and knowledgeable about AIDS which in turn will translate into action.

After the lighting of the candles, the most emotional part of the Memorial was the "calling of the names" portion of the ceremony in which audience members said the name of someone they know who lives with HIV/AIDS or died of the disease. Looking out, those present saw the array of light emanating from the candles and hearing the names of the many from Tucson and the world who had passed.

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