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World AIDS Day observed in Hagerstown

December 01, 1996

By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Staff Writer

Wet and windy weather didn't stop more than 200 people from making a four-block candle-lit walk around downtown Hagerstown Sunday night during the city's fourth annual observance of World AIDS Day.

The walk, which began at the Public Square, started about 15 minutes late. And many participants were unable to shield their candle flames from the gusting wind.

Still, the overall mood was upbeat in keeping with the event's "A Celebration of Life" theme.

For many walkers, like Hagerstown couple Jim and Wanda Roby, participation stemmed from a first-hand experience with AIDS or the HIV virus.

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"It's personal. We lost our son," said Wanda Roby, who said her daughter and sister-in-law also were walking.

Others, like 13-year-old Amanda Elam of Ringgold, walked to make a statement about the seriousness of the HIV virus and AIDS and its impact on society.

"Maybe try to convince people to have safe sex and stuff," said Elam, who came out for the first time with her cousin, Beverly Kipe. "Most people are, like, `No, it can't happen to me.' But it can, pretty much, happen to anyone."

Although she said she hasn't lost anyone to the disease, Kipe said she has many friends who have.

"It's a very scary epidemic, and it's also something that has a lot of social impact," said Kipe, who said she previously participated in the memorial portion of the local World AIDS Day observance. "I'm just happy to be able to support the group that's doing it."

For four years, the AIDS Coalition of Washington County has sponsored a candle-lit walk in Hagerstown in observance of World AIDS Day, said Todd Gossert, planning committee chairman.

In years past, the walk ended with a memorial service at Hagerstown City Park, Gossert said.

This year, instead of casting the event as a memorial to those who have died from AIDS, the AIDS Coalition decided to make it a celebration of the lives of those who are living with the disease as well as those who have died, he said.

It's fitting, since 1996 has been a year of major breakthroughs in treatment for the HIV virus and AIDS, giving hope that the disease will become a treatable, chronic condition within the next 10 years, said AIDS Coalition Chairman Dr. John Newby.

Instead of meeting at the park for a brief memorial service, walkers ended at the Maryland Theatre, where volunteers presented a varied program of music, original poetry readings, dance and other presentations.

"We asked anyone who feels they have been impacted by the virus in any way," said Gossert, who had 25 different presentations scheduled for the evening.

No program was printed to avoid placing the wrong emphasis, he said.

"This is not about the performers," Gossert said. "It's about the message of AIDS awareness."

To aid in that effort, local organizations set up information booths in the back of theater.

Guest speaker Jim Rowe, a registered nurse, talked about the wide impact of the disease and the importance of keeping it on the "front burner" of public health issues.

It's important to get the message across to young people before it's too late, said Gene Baker, a former AIDS Coalition board member who was diagnosed with the HIV virus in 1985.

Baker, 41, of Boonsboro, said he's been distressed by the rise in disease rates among young people as well as women.

In past years, cold weather has kept the local observance to between 100 and 200 people, Gossert said.

This year, the more than 200 walkers were joined by about 300 more people at the Maryland Theatre.

Wanda Roby said she was encouraged to see so many people walking despite the weather.

"It's really wonderful," she said. "It makes you feel the stigma isn't as bad as it was."

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