Taking the Necessary Steps

Aunt Rita’s Foundation celebrates a new era of HIV Equal as part of AIDS Walk Arizona

AIDS Walk Arizona 2017 kicking off in downtown Phoenix. Photo by nightfuse.com.

By Michelle Talsma Everson, November 2018 Issue.

Mothers, sons, daughters, fathers, partners, coworkers, students – and even dogs – will descend on downtown Phoenix Oct. 28 as fighters, allies, leaders, activists and fundraisers.

Since the event’s return in 2008, Aunt Rita’s Foundation has raised more than 2.7 million dollars and AIDS Walk Arizona has become the state’s largest gathering to advance the cause of HIV/AIDS funding and awareness.

“AIDS Walk Arizona is the largest community event statewide in support of Aunt Rita’s partnership with the City of Phoenix and the State of Arizona to effectively end HIV,” said Glen Spencer, executive director of Aunt Rita’s Foundation. “It’s critical that everyone – especially the LGBTQ community that is particularly impacted by HIV – support and participate in this event.”

This year, which marks Walgreen’s 10th year as a presenting sponsor, event organizers are anticipating 6,000 registered participants.

Nicole Begay and Heidi Ebbert, both of whom are living with HIV and champion efforts to educate all Arizonans about the importance of prevention and treatment, will co-chair this year’s event.

The main stage, vendor village and food trucks will be set up at Third Avenue and Washington Street, and additional entertainment stages will be set up throughout the course.

AIDS Walk Arizona 2018 will take place Oct. 28. Visit aidswalkaz.org for more information. Photo by nightfuse.com.

HIV Equal

Victor Avila, director of marketing and events for Aunt Rita’s, explained that this year’s event theme is HIV Equal.

“To be HIV Equal means to eliminate the stigma behind knowing your status,” he explained. “Whether you have tested positive or negative, being HIV Equal means you are taking the necessary steps to remain healthy by being well-informed about your diagnosis and being proactive about remaining in, or achieving, good health.”

This concept, he added, is intended to make everyone equal – regardless of their HIV status – and to eliminate the stigma.

“By eliminating the stigma behind an individual’s status, we [are]  … reducing the fear behind getting tested,” Avila said.


According to an Aunt Rita’s press release, this year’s event will celebrate the newly discovered science behind U=U, or undetectable equals untransmittable.

“We now know that HIV-positive individuals who are in treatment and have an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV,” Spencer emphasized. “HIV is 100 percent preventable and 100 percent treatable.”

This significant milestone in the global effort to end HIV gives momentum to the City of Phoenix’s UNAIDS Fast Track Cities Initiative, also known as the 90-90-90-0 campaign. The initiative has established a goal to end HIV by 2030, and U=U helps to reduce new infections, reduce HIV stigma and enable HIV-positive individuals to live complete lives, according to the Aunt Rita’s.

“HIV Equal ties into this message because everyone has a status, and it shouldn’t matter what your status is if you are [aware of it and] taking the steps necessary to be healthy – either treatment, or preventative measures,” Avila added.


Another milestone of this year’s event is the 10th anniversary of Barbra Seville’s Wonderful 100, a fundraising team headed by Richard Stevens who is known by his drag persona, Barbra Seville.

“By bringing 100 people together to raise $100 each, we’re helping in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but we’re also building a community and furthering the discussion,” Stevens said. “It’s been the crowning achievement in my life.”

Aunt Rita’s reported that Stevens’ team has raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars for Aunt Rita’s Foundation in the past nine years. (For more information on Barbra Seville’s Wonderful 100, click here.)

“While Stevens is quick to say that it’s not about him, it’s [instead] about his team of volunteers, it still takes a tireless advocate willing to host bake sales, drag performances and many other special events it takes to raise that kind of money,” Spencer said.

This year also marks the event’s final year in downtown Phoenix.

“In 2019, AIDS Walk Arizona is moving to Tempe Town Lake, and at a new time of year on the last Saturday in February,” Avila said. “Aunt Rita’s will continue partnerships with the City of Phoenix and commence new ones in the City of Tempe.”

30 Years Later

Randy Schrock, Gary Mangum and Skip O’Neill originally founded Aunt Rita’s in 1988, Spencer explained. Initially money was raised at an annual bake sale with funds administered by an all-volunteer group of community heroes to provide comfort care to people with AIDS, he added.

“Today, Aunt Rita’s maintains the grassroots spirit with a small and dedicated staff that provides philanthropic support to Arizona HIV service organizations, HIV education and outreach, advocacy initiatives and HIV prevention programming,” Spencer said. “AIDS Walk Arizona is Aunt Rita’s largest fundraiser and has allowed us to grant more than 1.8 million dollars to local nonprofits since 2005.”

All proceeds from AIDS Walk Arizona are grant funded to Aunt Rita’s family of 12 partner agencies, all of which provide services in Greater Phoenix and, together, form the continuum of care for both HIV prevention programs as well as treatment programs.

For more information on Aunt Rita’s, or its 12 partner agencies, visit auntritas.org.

Nicole Begay. Photo courtesy of Aunt Rita’s Foundation.

Meet the 2018 AIDS Walk AZ Co-Chairs

Nicole Begay

Everyone has their own story. A story that shapes a person and makes that person stronger each and every day. Nicole Begay’s story changed her life forever at 15 years old. A freshman in high school, Nicole was diagnosed with HIV and has been living with it for four years. She is now a 19-year-old college student who is super active in the HIV community, volunteering anywhere she can, and is honored to be working with Aunt Rita’s Foundation. Last year, Nicole shared her powerful story at RED Brunch. She is excited to continue making a difference in her community to make the city, state and world a better place!

Source: aidswalkaz.org.

Heidi Ebbert

The journey we share may start and end in very different ways. The roads we travel in between is what brings us together.

Heidi Ebbert and her son. Photo courtesy of Aunt Rita’s Foundation.

In 1991, at age 19, Heidi Ebbert’s life was turned upside down when her fiancé, Alex, passed away in her arms. His diagnosis was given just hours before his passing: AIDS. One (apparent) false negative test and four children later, her world was turned inside out when the doctors diagnosed her youngest son with AIDS. The road Heidi chose started with a move to Arizona for the best medical care and support in the country. The family’s move has proven to be far more than personal, however.

Today, Heidi and her son work together as activists, test dummies (for drug trials, that is), nationally recognized public speakers, and are passionate voices in our community. She embraces her disease by sharing with others the importance of getting tested, following medical advice and conquering the stigma that we all face.

Heidi has been an honored guest speaker at RED Brunch, local TV and radio stations and, most recently, was recognized for her outreach and education efforts by HEAL International. Being a 2018 AIDS Walk Arizona co-chair is by far the biggest honor Heidi has ever received, and she looks forward to seeing you at this year’s event!

Source: aidswalkaz.org.


HIV Facts

  • HIV is 100 percent preventable using condoms, PrEP, and effective treatment of people living with HIV.
  • HIV is 100 percent treatable with a long list of well-tolerated HIV medications available, and 7 regimens that are one pill daily.
  • HIV positive individuals in treatment and with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV to others, according to the CDC.
  • Arizona’s No Promo Homo law prohibits discussion of sex education in high schools that presents homosexual sex as safe sex; as a result, it is not discussed at all, putting thousands of children at risk every day and innumerable numbers of them who may have died as a result of this silence.
  • Of all new HIV infections in Phoenix, 38 percent are between the ages of 13 and 29.
  • In Arizona 85 percent of new HIV infections result from men who have sex with men.
  • HIV testing is free, confidential, and takes only 20 minutes and testing locations are available at HIVAZ.org.
  • The worst HIV status is “unknown,” and the CDC recommends that all Americans be HIV tested at least once.

Source: Aunt Rita’s Foundation.

AIDS Walk Arizona
Oct. 28
7:30 a.m. venue opens
8:30 a.m. main stage presentations
10 a.m. 5K run start
10:05 a.m. walk start
Phoenix City Hall
200 W. Washington St., in Phoenix