Whitman-Walker Health, the District’s federally-qualified community health center that specializes in HIV-related and LGBTQ competent health care services, will hold its annual Walk and 5K to End HIV on Saturday, Oct. 24.
Normally, the walk and 5-kilometer run kicks off from Freedom Plaza in downtown D.C., across from the Wilson Building. Companies and individuals often engage in fundraising tactics, obtaining pledged donations to raise money to benefit Whitman-Walker’s client services. But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and concerns about asymptomatic individuals who might spread the coronavirus, have led organizers to cancel mass gatherings.
This year, participants will be asked to participate remotely, and post pictures of themselves running or walking and share them on social media using the hashtag #WalktoEndHIV.
“We’ll be asking people to create their own 5K routes and walk at any time between October 24th and the end of the year, but we’re also going provide them with some suggested 5K routes, a couple of which actually take them by historic and current Whitman-Walker locations,” says David Mallory, Whitman-Walker’s senior director of annual giving. “We’ll be posting those selfies, and encouraging participants to post ‘why we walk’ stories on the 24th.
“The one thing we were most concerned about when we canceled the in-person gathering, was not being physically together. And the one thing that the walk is known for is creating a real sense of coming together and community, so we wanted to inspire that kind of feeling. So we’re trying to keep people engaged through our social media channels, our email campaigns, and re-create that sense of community virtually this year,” he adds.
Because there is no in-person event this year, Whitman-Walker is waiving all registration fees and is instead encouraging people, not only in D.C. but across the nation, to collect donations and pledges from friends and family members interested in providing support for HIV-related services. Mallory hopes that going virtual will encourage former D.C.-area residents who have since moved away to participate. He notes that many of the businesses who have previously sponsored the walk are continuing to pledge their support for the event.
“Even with the uncertainty early on, and with the COVID epidemic, we’ve heard from so many participants, so many former team captains who have said, ‘We’re going to be with you regardless, no matter what form it takes. It’s an important part of our year, an important thing for our company to be supportive of,'” says Mallory. “So the response has been really great. It’s been really heartening also to hear from our long-term partners in the business community and the corporate world who support our mission and our work.”
While the event has, in recent years, held the “Brunch to End HIV” — a way in which people who do not wish to run or walk can raise money for Whitman-Walker, there will be no brunch events due to the city’s COVID-19 restrictions and the limited seating at many D.C. eateries who would have participated. However, Mallory hopes that some of the past participating restaurants will decide to form a team to participate in the virtual walk, or provide some incentive items to encourage raising funds for the walk.
Naseema Shafi, the CEO of Whitman-Walker Health, notes that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has “shone a light” on health disparities and disparities in terms of access to care, that many of Whitman-Walker’s needier clients face. Since March, Whitman-Walker has been testing about 200 people a week for COVID-19.
“Our positivity rate fluctuates with the city’s, so whether the overall community is healthier or sicker, our positivity reflects that,” says Shafi. “Our positivity rate also reflects the parts of the community that we know are more burdened by the coronavirus, so for folks in D.C., we definitely see more Latinx folks and people of color who are positive with COVID. Over 70 percent of the people that we’re testing are our own patients, but we are registering new people every day if they need to come in for testing.”
Shafi says that the brighter light shone on health care disparities overall also extends to the HIV community, which underscores the importance of raising enough money to keep critical services and testing in place for vulnerable populations.
She also notes that Whitman-Walker will soon be offering and increasing some of its core services, such as dental care, and HIV and STI screenings, which were largely halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She wants the community to know that those services will be available in the coming weeks, providing yet another incentive for its annual donors to re-pledge their support.
“I think this is the moment that we need to help the community understand why HIV care is critical and why organizations like Whitman-Walker are exactly the places that understand how to take care of people from different backgrounds and get them engaged into care services,” says Shafi. “And frankly, we always need more, and so, the kinds of things that we need to do to really end the disparities in the city, and the disparities between people who understand how they can access PrEP, and those who don’t, requires the kind of philanthropy that comes from folks who engage with the Walk.”
For more information on the Walk & 5K to End HIV, or to register as a participant, visit www.walktoendhiv.org.
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