On a balmy morning, Rev. Deborah Warren, a Baptist minister, asked the crowd to join hands and bow their heads in prayer. With her soothing, assured voice, the founder of the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network united each person in a spirit of togetherness. She asked the people in the Gateway Village Atrium to recognize a higher power as they stand up for their brothers, sisters, or even themselves at the 16th Annual AIDS Walk Charlotte.
"Let us live in a world where we are all accepted," she said.
Warren's spiritual opening words kicked off Saturday's walk, which was equal parts celebration and remembrance. AIDS Walk Charlotte, which raises money for the advocacy group RAIN, treated participants to a high-energy Zumba workout before leading walkers two miles through historic Fourth Ward. Event speakers also read emotional stories of people living with HIV/AIDS from The Voices Project, which will be performed at the Actor's Theatre on Nov. 20.
One of those readers was Hannah Stutts, who provides HIV and syphilis testing at non-traditional sites for the Mecklenburg County Health Department. For two years, she has tested people at AIDS Walk Charlotte, thanks to the department's partnership with RAIN. At the health department's headquarters, she gives one-on-one counseling to educate people on safe sex practices that prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. She's also the voice of the Mecklenburg County information line at 704-432-TEST. The partnership between RAIN and the health department has benefited the community and how those who are diagnosed view themselves, she said.
"Almost everyone's story has a positive spin on how they improved their life," Stutts said.
Mecklenburg County has one of the highest rates of HIV cases in North Carolina. In 2011, 6,510 people lived with HIV in the county. From January to March, there were 34 new cases of HIV and 60 new AIDS infections, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services quarterly report of HIV/STD statistics.
Reggie Pearce, who has been HIV positive for 20 years, seemed to have beat the odds. As he and his mother filed out of the atrium for the walk, Reggie took a moment to credit his good health to his faith in Jesus.
"I've never been to the hospital, never been sick," he said.