Edmonton AIDS Walk for Life 2009

The 2009 AIDS Walk for Life took place this past Sunday. Mack and I participated for the second year in a row, and began raising money for it a few weeks ago. As some of you may have known, we were in a bit of a competition, and in spite of his “Twitter clout”, I won! Well, ultimately, HIV Edmonton is the winner, but thank you to all of my sponsors who helped me raise $260 (Mack raised $210). All of the money raised from the walk stays in the community to help with HIV Edmonton’s work with prevention, education and support for those living with HIV, among other activities.

With the water bottle and reusable bag I “earned” from raising over $250

It was a beautiful, albeit brisk, day for the 5km walk, and the weather was a blessing for the event, held in Churchill Square this year. The outdoor setting made everything seem more lively, and welcomed any and all who were in the area to enjoy the festivities. Besides music and entertainment, Planet Organic and Starbucks were on hand distributing refreshments, and walkers were treated to free pizza from Pizza 73.

Churchill Square

Burlesque performer Sophie Sticke

At the same time, there seemed to be more confusion that arose out of the open space, a natural result from a latent ability to exert control over a wide area. Last year, a button we received at the end of the walk entitled participants to complimentary pizza and popcorn, but this year, because of the nature of the space, tickets were required for food. It hadn’t been communicated to us that tickets could be used for a free hot dog from Fat Franks (we only stumbled upon this after deciding that we would buy food ourselves), and I’m sure many participants who hadn’t wanted to eat prior to the walk weren’t aware of this fact.

Nitpicks aside, it was still a great event. Nick Lees, the “Mile High Marshall” and Sophie led the way on a float of sorts down the walk route. There’s something about just being a part of a crowd, knowing you are a part of a movement larger than yourself that is wonderful to experience.

Nick Lees and Sophie

And we’re off!

Mack gets his walk on

Along the walk route

At the Legislature

Instead of stopping halfway through the walk at the Legislature for a photo, the organizers decided the group shot would be taken at the end back at Churchill Square. The stairs on the Centennial Plaza were the perfect place to do so.

Group photo op

Thanks again to everyone who supported us!

Edmonton AIDS Walk for Life 2008

I’ve written in the past on this blog about seminars and workshops I’ve attended to learn more about the topic of HIV/AIDS, but they’ve been heavily skewed towards the international side of things. For whatever reason, it’s become easy to ignore the same issues at home and concentrate only on the problems abroad.

Thus, when I saw advertisements spotlighting the upcoming AIDS Walk for Life, I decided to sign up. I participated in the walk once before while in university, but hadn’t continued with the annual fall event.

Walk for Life

Since that time, the walk has changed – it now started from City Hall (instead of the Butterdome) and wound its way through downtown Edmonton (instead of the River Valley). The fundraising part of it also got easier, with an online collection function available to those registering online. I really should have utilized it – Mack garnered $100 after just a day of soliciting donations.

We made out way to City Hall on Sunday afternoon, just in time to join in on the festivities. Pre-walk entertainment included the high-energy drag queen Yoko Ono and the female singing trio Belle Rouge.

Yoko Ono does Footloose

Watching Belle Rouge

There were various displays around the City Room, and a craft area for children. The entire walk and atmosphere was very family-friendly.

Art work

We were eventually ushered outside for an optional warm-up led by peppy staff from the World Health Club, and we were off.

Dance, everybody!

Before the walk

It was very clearly an autumn day, with overcast skies and a light breeze, but we couldn’t have asked for better weather – it was just cool enough for a comfortable 5km stroll.

And we’re off!

Poor puppy!

Winding across the closed street

The group made an obligatory refueling/photo pit stop at the Legislature before heading back, when it did start to get a little chillier. Thankfully, however, the rain held off.

At the Legislature

We were promised food upon our return to City Hall, and the organizers delivered. With the walk over, we were free to gorge ourselves on complimentary soft drinks, Starbucks coffee and iced tea, mini doughnuts, fresh popped sweet and salty kettle corn, and Funky Pickle pizza. We happily obliged.

Mack happy with mini dougnnuts and balloon

With popcorn and pizza

The Walk for Life was not only fun, but was for a great cause. I will definitely be looking to participate again next year.

Mack’s photo set is here.

World Vision One Life Experience

I took some time on Friday to walk through the World Vision One Life Experience, located at the HMV Stage at West Edmonton Mall. I read about the free exhibit a few days ago, and was interested to see how the stories of the children affected by HIV/AIDS would be conveyed.

Upon entering the exhibit, I was given an iPod Shuffle and headphones, and asked to enter a curtained area after pressing play. Participants follow the tracks of one of four children based on true stories. I was Stephen, an 11 year old from Uganda.

The path travelled included pictures of Stephen’s family and a replica of the bed he and his siblings slept in. One night, he and his brother were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army, after which Stephen was forced to watch and commit horrible acts of violence. Here, I was invited to pick up a rifle attached to the wall, to feel the weight of the weapon and further immerse myself in the footsteps of the young boy. Luckily, Stephen was rescued from his captors and spent some time in a rehabilitation camp for child soldiers.

Before heading home, Stephen had to take an HIV/AIDS test. At this point, participants were directed to a clinic to sit and reflect on the possibility of infection before being provided with a piece of paper stamped either with a “+” or “-” sign. It was a bit unnerving, even though it wasn’t “real.” Stephen thankfully tested negative, and was reunited with his family.

This is a really unique exhibit because it goes beyond using statistics and images to expose the public to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other problems being faced by many countries in Africa. The One Life Experience runs until Sunday.

One Life Experience

Stephen Lewis: “Canada’s Status in the World: How Does It Measure Up?”

At a recent HIV/AIDS session I attended, each participant was asked who their inspiration was that brought them there that day. I can’t remember what my ultimate response was, but had I answered honestly, I would have said Stephen Lewis. At the time though, his name seemed much too cliché and pedestrian for that particular forum. It was a personal travesty for me to have missed his 2006 International Week address, so when I found out he was coming back to Edmonton to deliver another lecture, I jumped at the opportunity.

So after dinner, Dickson and I headed down to the Timms Centre at the University for his lecture titled “Canada’s Status in the World: How Does it Measure Up?” It was nearly a packed house, and after quite the score of introductions, Mr. Lewis was welcomed on stage.

He framed his speech with a list of five provocations – nuclear proliferation, genocide (in particular, the current Darfur crisis), the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, climate change, and of course, the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Although I respect him as a knowledgable man with perspective on a wide variety of issues because of his travels, experience, and obvious appreciation for big-picture implications if inaction remains, Mr. Lewis’s lack of personal connection really weakened his discussion on the first four issues. He really did sound like he was posturing to the crowd.

By the time he reached his final topic, however, the rest of the address fell away immediately, and I was reminded of the fact that I was in awe of being in the same room with him, breathing the same air (I am not worthy!). His passion, intensity, and humanity resonated from the stage as he talked, among other things, about orphans, grandmother-headed families, the potential for a viable microbicide, the need for gender equality and sexual negotiation, and Canada’s own failed legislation allowing for a warehouse of ARVs to sit idle. Though many of the stories were included in Race Against Time, it was better hearing them from him in person.

Like Art Spiegeleman, Mr. Lewis possesses a vocabulary that puts me to shame. He was expectedly long-winded, but I don’t think anyone seemed to mind – the audience was clearly rapt throughout surreal pin-drop hour and a half (though really, all in attendance were likely already holding him in a state of public reverence, even before he ever had to open his mouth). I really liked how he managed to pull current media headlines and made them relevant to his topics (e.g. the War Crimes trial in Montreal, a UN negotiation with Turkey over the semantics of their Armenian genocide). He also had a genuine sense of humor (with regards to his time with the NDP, and I’m paraphrasing, but “the only difference between a cactus and a caucus is that with a cactus, the pricks are on the outside”).

Since most of the talk was decidedly apocalyptic, I was surprised that he was able to bring about an optimistic ending of hope. He even recommended a book, Stephanie Nolen’s upcoming 28, a collection of narratives centering on persons living with HIV/AIDS, that he believes is good enough to increase mainstream consciousness about the subject.

Perhaps I should have taken the reception as an opportunity to meet Mr. Lewis, but it’s more my style to admire from a distance, so we left almost immediately after the conclusion of the event. He’s a wonderful speaker, and I would not hesitate to attend another one of his lectures in the future.

Behind the Pandemic

Continuing with the barrage of learning opportunities, I participated in a workshop on the connection between HIV/AIDS and social inequity at HIV Edmonton today. It was a small group of fifteen, but perhaps it was more conducive towards a sharing environment. There was a wide variety of people present, from university students, Streetworks and STD Centre staff to a medical anthropologist.

The facilitators went through an educational resource kit from the International Coalition on AIDS and Development (ICAD) titled “Behind the HIV/AIDS Pandemic” (downloadable online!). The kit uses a hands-on approach to uncover the differences between vulnerabilities, risks, and impacts in relation to the AIDS pandemic. One of the more unique activities included a simulation, where tables in a room represented different areas of the world, including Eastern Europe/Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and generic High-income Regions. The object of the activity involved building a 10 x 10 square from geometric pieces akin to a tangram, with success ultimately requiring cooperation between regions, and extreme negotiation with those in the privileged area as they held the only pair of scissors and roll of tape in trust. Hilariously, when all groups gathered to compare task results, it ended up that the High-income Region was the only one who failed to complete their square (they had gotten so comfortable with having other areas approach them that they figured there was no need to read the instructions in any detail).

All in all, it was a worthwhile day – it’s always great to meet people and learn at the same time!

Poverty in Malawi

I ventured out late this afternoon for another International Week session titled, “Gender, Education and the HIV/AID Pandemic in Rural Malawi.” Presenting were Dr. Anne Fanning, a retired physician, and Rachel Maser, who just recently returned from a ten-month volunteer stint in Malawi with Engineers Without Borders.

Dr. Fanning began the session with a whirlwind twenty minute PowerPoint presentation meant to provide a framework and overview of the factors involved in poverty, including the necessity of infrastructure, good governance and access to education. While the content was there, I wish there had been more time for depth – her spiel can best be likened to a Blender Blaster of statistics, charts, graphs, maps and fact lists. I think she may have made some assumptions that the audience was more familiar with the material than we actually were (or, it may have just been me), and breezed through it without a pause. It’s evident she’s extremely knowledgeable (she is one of the leading experts on TB), so I can only hope to be able to hear her speak again on a future occasion (an exasperating fact – though condom use is not as prevalent in Africa as it should be, Dr. Fanning noted a statistic that an able-bodied, sexually-active man in Africa only has access to an average of fourteen condoms a year).

Rachel also referred to PowerPoint slides, and on them included many pictures she took while in Malawi. Working through EWB, but with an organization called ActionAid, her objective focused on girls’ education. One of her projects while there involved organizing a day where young girls were able to listen to positive role models working in professional jobs, and then job shadow some of those women on the following day. She came away with the sense that more had to be done to change the perception that the domain of the female was in the home. One interesting point – Malawi, at least in the southern part of the country where she was stationed, is quite well connected by cell phone. She talked about how the technology was revolutionizing the way people did business. For instance, a farmer could receive a text message with the current market price for grain, and then decide whether or not a trip to town would be worth it.

In all, it was great to be able to hear perspectives of those who have worked and lived in the field.

Film: “Their Brothers’ Keeper”

Until March, the University of Alberta International Centre will be holding weekly film screenings to increase awareness about global issues that affect the worldwide community, including human trading, conflict, and disease.

Tonight, I went to watch a film entitled Their Brothers’ Keeper: Orphaned by AIDS:

“Filmed over a seven-month period, Their Brothers’ Keepers goes inside Chazanga Compound, a shantytown in Lusaka, Zambia. The crew focuses on two families headed by children, and their ongoing struggle for food, water, schooling and health care. Local community and aid workers offer support but lack any real resources. Throughout the film, excerpts from speeches by Stephen Lewis, UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, fill in the broader social context.”

In Zambia alone, there are an estimated 850,000 orphans. Those children without any remaining adult relatives, or adult relatives nearby, are forced to support themselves. So mature, strong, and brave these young heads of family are that it was easy to forget that they are still children, robbed of the opportunity to play, to laugh, to go to school and to grow up naturally and away from death. The children filmed showed many signs of resilience, most notably, continuing the tradition of storytelling. While the elder sister of one family was away, her brother of eight years made sure his six and three year old siblings didn’t miss their nightly ritual.

Following the screening, a medical practitioner who has worked in Africa, Dr. Stan Houston, led a question and answer session. He noted that the movie was decidedly optimistic, whereas the general tone at which he spoke betrayed his more realistic viewpoint – that tens of millions more people will die before the global community will act aggressively enough to stop the pandemic.

One of the most interesting audience members was a Registered Nurse who had volunteered in Zambia for a number of years, working with an NGO to assist with ARV (Anti-Retroviral) delivery in rural areas. In her experience, while the drugs may be available for distribution, without the infrastructure and support of public health services, the pills would be rendered ineffective.

Something that came out of the discussion that I wasn’t aware of was the effectiveness of male circumcision to decrease HIV infection. In two separate random trials, the transmission rate was 50% less in circumcised men. Though a few pointed out that encouraging condom use would be easier than mass procedures, it’s still a measure worth knowing about.

I was thoroughly engaged, and look forward to similar events in lieu of International Week, that runs next week from January 29-February 2. I encourage you to attend a session or two.

Cynicism in Check

I finally took the time to read the latest edition of New Trail, the magazine for University of Alberta alumni. Featured were several graduates now working in Africa, for causes such as the rehabilitation of child soldiers, education, and HIV/AIDS treatment. Their stories are powerful, and it does amaze me that at one time, these leaders were students at the U of A.

One alumnus in particular, Robert Opp of the United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP), struck me as being exceptionally honest. In Race Against Time, Stephen Lewis scorned the devastating inefficiencies of the United Nations, something that I know would leave me feeling frustrated and jaded if I ever decided to embark on such a mission in a developing country. Opp revealed his experience with this, and his shield from pessimism:

“With such a mammoth operation and working in such difficult circumstances, there is the possibility of feeling overwhelmed, cynical, or even inadequate. Part of working effectively at the UN, says Robert, ‘is being able to see how working within a bureaucracy can lead to good results.’ He tries to stay focused on the people who need help, remembering the times he worked in the field, or taking the opportunity during visits to WFP operations to meet the people who are receiving aid. ‘If you can simply talk to the people who are getting help or who need it, and witness their struggles, you come back and work twice as hard. Overcoming cynicism and the feeling of being overwhelmed is a constant struggle,’ he admits, ‘but I believe — I know — how important that food is.'”

Speaking of Stephen Lewis, there was an article in the Edmonton Journal‘s “Sunday Reader” section this week that talked about a local Grandmothers to Grandmothers Chapter of the Stephen Lewis Foundation campaign. Its objective is to assist matriarchs in Africa forced to take care of their children and grandchildren due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The GANG (Grandmothers of Alberta for a New Generation) will be meeting on January 23 at 7:30pm at St. Paul’s United Church (11526-76 Ave).