published Monday, March 30th, 2009

Fighting AIDS near home


by Elizabeth Ryan

About 400 people bundled up against the cold Sunday for the 14th annual Chattanooga CARES Strides of March event, which raised about $50,000 for HIV/AIDS preventative education, support and treatment.

"We pray that today would help us cast a vision, that we would be the kind of community where all are welcomed, where all are loved, where all are cared for," said Pastor Mark Flynn of the Christ United Methodist Church in East Brainerd, who led the invocation before the 3.1 mile-walk.

Chattanooga CARES is a nonprofit that provides education, support and free medical care to all those affected by HIV in the 11 counties of the Tennessee Valley. An average of 10 people a month test positive for HIV in the greater Hamilton County area, but Assistant Director Jerry Evans said in recent years, many people have become complacent about disease prevention and regular testing.

"Traditionally now in the United States most people are finding out that they have HIV after they're already sick and that's not what we want," he said. "If you have risky behaviors, we want you to get tested routinely."

African-American women are among the populations particularly hard-hit by the disease, according to Elizabeth Elliott, HIV awareness coordinator for the National Coalition of 100 Black Women Chattanooga chapter.

In 2007, Ms. Elliott said most of the newest cases were among African-American women, who contracted the disease through heterosexual intercourse. Her group is committed to raising awareness nationally and among those most at risk.

"Know your status, get out and get tested," she said. Other groups, like the 40-member "Christ Cares" team from the Christ United Methodist Church in East Brainerd, turned out to simply show their support for those affected by the disease. Church members raised about $4,500 for the cause and team leader Mike Lawrence, said he hoped more churches would be involved in the future.

"I think the AIDS victims often times are equated to the lepers of Jesus' time, so why wouldn't you reach out to people who are in physical and emotional need?" he said.

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