AIDS Day gathering honors the lost, living

A candlelit march, service and work on a quilt project helped to commemorate the annual observance.

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WALLA WALLA -- Dozens of people convened downtown Tuesday evening in observation of the 22nd annual World AIDS Day and in hope for a cure. The gathering marked the Walla Walla area's 19th celebration of the worldwide day of remembrance.

Jill Dickey, the program director of Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, a local nonprofit that provides support and assistance to people living with HIV/AIDS, welcomed the group to an evening of reflection, love and hope. Gatherers then lit candles as the Sirens of Swank, the female a capella group from Whitman College, sang.

Together, the candlelit group proceeded down Main Street to First Congregational Church. Making their way out of the cold, gatherers were invited to write down the names of loved ones living with or lost to AIDS to be read aloud during the service.

Pianist Jackie Wood filled the sanctuary with music, and the leader of the service, Adam Kirtley, welcomed everyone as they took their seats.

"This a somber occasion," Kirtley said. "But it's also a supportive and hopeful one."

According to AVERT, an international AIDS charity, 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981, and 33 million are currently living with HIV/AIDS. And while rates of transmission in the United States have steeply declined, an estimated 1.2 million Americans are infected.

But amid these overwhelming statistics, Kirtley reminded the gatherers to honor the lives of individuals.

"We know the massive numbers will never do justice to the names, the personalities and those we hold dear," he said. "The names we read will never be just a number."

Nearly 30 names that had been written down at the start of the service were then read aloud, and gatherers were asked to light candles at the front of the sanctuary in remembrance of those named.

As the service came to a close, Kirtley invited guests to the atrium to work on a new panel of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, as a therapeutic act of grieving and moving forward.

"The very process of doing ... of sewing ... of making moves memorializing from within to without," he said.

The quilt project began in 1987 as a memorial to and celebration of those lost to the pandemic. Currently, the quilt is made up of more than 46,000 memorial panels that hold the names of more than 91,000 people. In addition to illustrating the enormity of the pandemic, the quilt raises money to help those currently living with HIV/AIDS.

The evening's mood shifted to hope and fellowship as gatherers made their way to the church atrium to help in the making of the new quilt panel. Over refreshments, people mingled and embraced, while others took their turn at the decorating table.

Christina Denully, a Blue Mountain Heart to Heart client, was grateful for the events' emphasis on remembrance, reflection and celebration, but she also hopes that the gatherings on World AIDS Day will increase awareness for the future.

"People cannot forget that (AIDS) is still out there ... and many others are yet to be infected," she said. "Events like this are important because we need to remember that even though people are living longer with AIDS, people are still losing their lives to it."

Lara Goodrich can be reached at laragoodrich@wwub.com.

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