MESA, AZ - Sandy, a Mesa resident, is one of over one million Americans living with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Her husband had hemophilia and was infected with HIV during a blood transfusion. A few months after his death in 1994, Sandy decided to get tested. The result: positive.
"I wasn't surprised," Sandy said. "It wasn't the best news in the world, but it is what it is."
It wasn't long after her diagnosis that she learned about Compassion in Action, an East Valley organization that cares for the needs of those infected or affected with HIV/AIDS. Compassion in Action provides Sandy and about 100 other individuals per month with food from their hand-packed food boxes.
The organization also hosts community dinners, where people with HIV/AIDS can meet each other and form relationships. The benefit of the community is much greater than the benefit of the food, Sandy said.
"I have people I can talk to that know what I'm going through," Sandy said. "It's a place where everyone can get together, have a good meal and talk about things that they couldn't normally talk to just anybody with."
Compassion in Action was founded by Steve and Patty Robenalt in 1993. Patty's mother was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. Throughout her battle with AIDS- two recurring fears echoed from her lips. Did her family still love her and care about her? Did God still love her and care about her? Ten months later, Patty's mother died.
Compassion in Action aims to decrease the isolation that so many people with HIV/AIDS feel, Steve said. Through their monthly gatherings, they have formed a community centered on discussion, hope and prayer.
"We're really giving them food for their body and food for their soul," Steve said.
But the food and time needed to run this organization doesn't come free. The federal funding that used to allow Compassion in Action to provide food boxes to the valley was redistributed last year, leaving little money to food services. Now the organization has one major source of funding: Aunt Rita's Foundation.
Aunt Rita's Foundation was created in the 1980s, but after an influx of federal funding for HIV/AIDS, it was disbanded in the 1990s. In 2005, many HIV/AIDS organizations in Arizona, including Compassion in Action, realized that the communities they served had a need for additional funding. Today, Aunt Rita's Foundation serves as the fundraising arm for 18 HIV/AIDS organizations across the state.
The main fundraiser for Aunt Rita's Foundation is the AIDS Walk, which will be held on October 20 at 3rd Avenue and Washington in Phoenix. The money raised from that event will be split equally among the 18 groups supported by Aunt Rita's Foundation.
"We have a lot of agencies that are very small and we really are their fundraising arm," said Kit Kloeckl, executive director of Aunt Rita's Foundation. "Probably the most efficient way for them to raise money is to have us do it on their behalf and then distribute it equally to all of them."
Kloeckl said that the AIDS Walk is always a fun event and that they even allow friendly dogs to join them at the walk for just an additional $10. The goal for this year is to raise $500,000 which could be extremely beneficial to the 18 organizations and Arizonans living with HIV/AIDS.
"The disease hasn't gone away," Kloeckl said. "We need to do everything that we can to prevent and a lot of our agencies, that's their focus is working on prevention, education and awareness."
HEAL International in Tempe is an international organization that has a student branch at Arizona State University dedicated to community outreach, education and awareness about HIV/AIDS and public health in general.
Much like Compassion in Action, HEAL International relies on the money from the AIDS Walk to perform nearly all of its services.
"We're sort of a shoe-string non-profit, all volunteer," said Dr. Damien Salamone, executive director of HEAL International. "Aunt Rita's Foundation is pretty much the only major source of funding that we get."
Salamone said that many people are starting to see HIV/AIDS as a non-issue because there is now medicine to fight against HIV/AIDS. But that being said, HIV/AIDS is still a prevalent issue in society.
"HIV is on the rise, particularly in minority communities," Salamone said.
Because of the money from the AIDS Walk, HEAL International will continue to inform different communities about the seriousness of HIV/AIDS and try to reduce the stigmas associated with the disease. They also conduct a mentoring program for at-risk youth in Guadalupe.
Sandy, who has been living with HIV for over 19 years now, is not letting the disease get the best of her. She will be walking at the AIDS Walk on the Compassion in Action team as she has for the past several years. Last year, she began volunteering for Compassion in Action as well.
"I started volunteering last year just as a way to give back to an organization that's helped me out so much," Sandy said. "I just wanted to be able to give back a little bit."
Because of Sandy's participation and the participation of about 6,000 other walkers, Compassion in Action, HEAL International and 16 other groups will be able to continue the service that they have provided to Sandy and many other Arizonans.
If you go
What: AIDS Walk Phoenix & 5K Run
When: Sunday, Oct. 20, 9 a.m.
Information/Sign Up: aidswalkphoenix.org