On Durango’s Animas River Trail just south of Rotary Park near downtown, two women with almost realistic, life-sized chicken hats roll by on antique bicycles, wearing feathered scarves with tails that float behind them in the breeze. Toy rockets launch from the park and jet into the sky. Sounds of the Animas River and leaves on swaying branches meet.
They are riding for education. Riding for awareness. Riding for fun. All are riding, walking or running as part of the 16th annual Durango AIDS Benefit 2013.
Deb Nielsen, the event organizer, said she wanted to find a way to get the community more involved.
“It used to be a banquet, a show and a silent auction, a sort of an evening event, but we felt we weren’t reaching out to the community as much as we wanted,” she said. “So, we’ve been planning this for a year now. Now we have runners, walkers, bikers and families.”
Saturday’s event at Rotary Park included a 1.6-mile family run/walk, a 6-kilometer run/walk and a 4- or 8-mile ride for cyclists on the river trail.
Participants also had a chance to see a portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt Project, which is on display at Durango Public Library through Sept. 22. The project, which was started in 1987 by friends and families who made a quilt to list the names of those dear to them lost to the disease, has grown to become a symbol of the battle against acquired immune deficiency syndrome and the human immunodeficiency virus that causes it.
Today, the quilt is composed of 48,000 individual, 3-by-6-foot panels and weighs more than 54 tons, according to AIDSquilt.org. Assembled in full only five times in its history, portions of the quilt are displayed across the country.
All are powerful, and some panels from the quilt hit close to home – Vail, Colorado Springs, even closer.
“It’s among the largest pieces of folk art in the world,” Nielsen said.“You can see one that’s from Durango.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the government website Colorado.gov, 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV or AIDS. In Colorado, there are more than 17,000 cases of HIV, and more than half of those are in Denver County.
One in five infected people are not aware they carry the virus.
Brien Webster is a medical case manager for Western Colorado AIDS Project and was present in the park to show his support for the benefit. He said Colorado AIDS Project promotes education and prevention programs across the state.
“We try to really promote a better understanding,” he said. “(We) try to encourage local support for people with HIV and for educating the communities. We help the individual, and that assistance goes anywhere from financial assistance to utility bills.”
Webster said he wants to empower those living with HIV.
“We’re here to support them so they can manage it – it doesn’t manage them,” he said.
In the park, bow ties and suspenders were common attire. Barbara Balaguer Blundell and Charlotte Overby were comfortable in their chicken hats, calling themselves “biker chicks.”
Blundell said the event is designed to reach everyone in Durango and beyond. She is the board chairwoman for Four Corners Gay and Lesbian Alliance for Diversity, which hosts the annual benefit. She said awareness of AIDS and HIV is crucial.
“We’ve structured it as bike/walk/run for the whole family, because it can affect everyone,” she said. “The costumes are a way to bring awareness but also to have fun while we’re fundraising. It’s really just a way to promote a healthy, active lifestyle.”
Overby is new to Durango. She said she enjoyed rasing money for a good cause while helping to remind people of a sobering disease.
“It’s an excellent community event to be a part (of), and it’s something that is far-reaching that you can have fun with, but it’s a serious issue, and it’s something that we can all do in our own way,” she said.
Near the end of the event, Nielsen led a moment of silence for those near and far who lost their lives to AIDS and those affected by the disease.
Afterward, during the onset of a sun drenched afternoon, Greg Weiss addressed the crowd.
“I was in New York in the ’80s and saw the impact this disease had on people,” Weiss said. “It’s all about the education. HIV still exists.”
Kathy Hall shared her own emotional words.
“I’m here in memory of my brother, Michael. He died 15 years ago, and we miss him dearly. We’re just honored to remember him today,” she said.
The tradition of reading of the names from the AIDS quilt will take place at 3:30 p.m. today at Durango Public Library, 1900 East Third Ave.