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AIDS walk held in Berkeley County

May 21, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - About 35 people stepped out of the pavilion at War Memorial Park Sunday evening to release red balloons in memory of AIDS victims.

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They watched in silence as the balloons soared above the roof, climbing over the tree line until they were scant dots on the horizon.

The International AIDS Candlelight Memorial started in 1983, but Sunday was the first time it was commemorated in Berkeley County.

One reason is that the AIDS Network of the Tri-State Area had been a part-time service until last year, according to Executive Director Judith A. Friend, who is full time.

This year, Martinsburg joined Charleston, Parkersburg and Wheeling as West Virginia cities participating in the worldwide remembrance. Over 300 cities in 43 countries were expected to take part.

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The group in Martinsburg included Network staff, students who educate their peers and a choir from the Hedgesville Assembly of God Church.

They started out in the afternoon at King and Queen streets and walked together to the park.

"This is a safe way to bring AIDS awareness into the community," Friend said. "It was not a march. A march sounds militant. This was a walk."

At the park, they lit white memorial candles poking up through plastic cups and listened to a reading of Scripture.

Valerie Smith, whose son Ian Gibson-Smith contracted the HIV virus 14 years ago, said it is crucial for parents to talk about AIDS with their children.

She urged parents to get over their embarrassment. "We must work together until there are no more families that have to go through this nightmare," she said.

According to a Web site on the memorial, more than 16 million people have died of AIDS since 1983, while 34 million people are currently living with AIDS or HIV.

Jim Christofic of Mathias, in Hardy County, announced at the memorial that he is starting a scholarship fund in the name of his partner, Jeffrey L. Blouse, who died of AIDS on June 8, 1999.

Blouse, who managed a Tyson's chicken plant in Pennsylvania before he and Christofic moved to West Virginia, was 48.

Christofic and Blouse had been together for 13 years. Christofic said he had trouble carrying on after Blouse's death.

"When he passed away, I thought that was it," said Christofic, 53. "I didn't know what else to do."

The scholarship fund, open to Shepherd College and Potomac State College students active in AIDS education, was an answer.

"I prayed a lot about this. I asked God's guidance in this and this is what he led me to do," Christofic said.

Christofic, who teaches baking, has set aside $10,000 of his own money and expects the scholarship fund to start at about $15,000. There will probably be one annual award of $500, starting in December.

He said that he and Blouse enjoyed helping other people as much as they enjoyed each other's company. They donated money to AIDS causes and they bought medication and food, anonymously, for AIDS patients who couldn't afford them.

Christofic said he plans to turn his home into a retreat for homeless AIDS patients. His house has two bedrooms, but he is turning a basement into a third and is renovating a shed into a bunkhouse where two other people can stay.

These projects allow Blouse's name to live on, Christofic said.

"I miss his presence. ... He loved life so much," he said.

Friend hopes the turnout will double or triple for next year's local memorial. She noted that everyone there Sunday had been invited.

When it comes to AIDS, she said, people shy away - unless their lives have been affected by the disease.

At health fairs, people avoid the AIDS Network's booth and don't want information about the disease, even if they're at risk of getting it, Friend said.

Glenna Allison, the Network's case manager, said two groups are seeing the greatest increase in number of AIDS cases - people in their 20s, whose free lifestyles as youths are catching up to them, and divorcees and widows in their 40s or 50s who are returning to dating.

The Network receives $37,000 a year to conduct prevention and educational programs in eight counties, according to Friend.

It also administers medical, food and housing assistance programs for Berkeley and Jefferson counties.

Allison said the Network had 71 clients in those counties in 1998 and has added another 10 clients since then. Six of the 81 clients have died.

Some of the students who have gone through AIDS education programs in Berkeley County schools were at Sunday's memorial.

Friend said there have been two classes in Berkeley County. She is planning to start another one in Morgan County, but said she's not optimistic about Jefferson County. There has not been any interest from the school district, she said.

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