We are back! AIDS Walk New York returns to Central Park on May 15, after a long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The thirst that people who are registering have to get back to the park for this more than 35-year tradition–it’s making me emotional,” said Emily Parson, who leads GMHC’s AIDS Walk New York organizing team. “Many people have a deep connection to this event. The energy is palpable when you’re there in the park.”
AIDS Walk New York is the world’s largest single-day HIV and AIDS fundraiser. Rain or shine, thousands of people have converged on Central Park every year, from the first walk in 1986 through 2019.
“Sometimes it’s been strangely freezing and sometimes concerningly hot, but literally nothing has stopped this event from happening–until the COVID-19 pandemic,” Parson said.
“It’s been a loss worth grieving not having it in person the last two years,” she added. “It’s been really hard for our community of thousands of people who do the walk every year to remember who they’ve lost–and celebrate the wonderfully diverse communities that come together.”
Especially in the early years, AIDS Walk New York was a demonstration, as much as a fundraiser, said Parson, who’s helped organize it for over a decade.
Craig R. Miller started the event in 1986 to raise money for GMHC to help people who were sick or dying of AIDS and to lobby the government for research and treatment. Miller, much like Larry Kramer, Paul Popham, and other early GMHC organizers, “could see that the public was neglecting this deadly disease that was affecting their communities,” Parson said.
The walk’s main beneficiary is GMHC, and over the last 36 years it’s raised over $163 million for dozens of HIV and AIDS service organizations in the tri-state area.
Other AIDS walks sprung up in the eighties in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London, and since then, the AIDS walk movement has enormously increased awareness and decreased stigma around the disease. There have been hundreds of AIDS Walks worldwide–but only one in Central Park.
“It’s a demonstration. It’s a fundraiser for lifesaving services–and it’s also a celebration, with music, and cheerleaders encouraging you across the finish line,” Parson said. “There is a lot of positive energy about how far we’ve come.”
While AIDS Walk New York is festive, she added, “We are still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’re walking for a disease that still does not have a cure.” COVID-19 precautions will be observed, and there will be a livestream for people who don’t feel comfortable attending in person.
Sunshine and Rain
Organizing a walk for thousands of people through Manhattan is a gargantuan endeavor. Parson said her team rents a fleet of trucks, cars, and generators–along with a half-mile of tents, tables and chairs. The song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” has kicked off almost every walk, and can be heard from Sheep Meadow to the Naumburg Bandshell.
And then there are the permits. Parson’s team must obtain them from the NYC Parks Department and the NYS Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, plus a parade permit from the New York Police Department, and still more for trucks to load materials.
But her enthusiasm is undimmed by the many logistical demands. “I love this walk,” said Parson, who did her first one in 1998, when she was only in fifth grade, with her mother, who’d lost a colleague to AIDS. “A lot of people do it to support someone or in their memory—or because they made a promise,” she said.
One of AIDS Walk New York’s most dedicated walkers, Francine Goldstein, has taken part since 1988, when her best friend was diagnosed with AIDS. “I promised her that I would do everything that I could to make sure that no one else would have to suffer the way that she did,” Goldstein says on her sponsorship page. Goldstein has raised over $765,000 since then, making her the second-highest fundraiser in the walk’s history.
This will be the first AIDS Walk New York without another cherished stalwart, Rita Fischer, who died last year at age 97. “Rita never missed a walk,” Parson said, adding that she used a scooter in her later years. “We miss her dearly.”
Fischer raised $1.4 million over 30 years, and her niece, Elisa Hallerman, is leading the Mamacita Rita team in her honor this year. Another member of GMHC’s AIDS Walk team, Thom Medrano, is providing support. Fischer called him her “AIDS Walk son,” over their more than 20 years of collaboration, Parson said.
Corporate sponsors also play a significant role, including this year’s Presenting Sponsor, ViiV Healthcare, with Premiere Sponsor Gilead Sciences, and many more.
But AIDS Walk New York is for everyone, Parson emphasized, so there is no registration fee or fundraising minimum. “We will be in Central Park rain or shine,” she vowed.