COLUMBIA — In some of the coldest weather so far this winter, dozens of Columbia community members participated in World AIDS Day, walking down College Avenue with fistfuls of helium-filled balloons Monday evening. Illuminated by blinking lights, the 235 red balloons represented the lives of the 235 North Central Missouri residents who have died of AIDS during the past 27 years.
As of 2007, there were 202 people living with HIV in Boone County; 11 cases were diagnosed in 2007 alone, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
World AIDS Day is celebrated annually around the globe on Dec. 1 to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS. Rain, a local STD prevention and care organization, partnered with the Bond Life Sciences Center, the Chancellor's Diversity Initiative, SHAPE, Trail to a Cure and The NAMES Project Foundation to bring World AIDS Day to Columbia.
Throughout the day, free HIV tests were available at Memorial Union on the MU campus. Families and friends of AIDS victims also shared their personal stories and answered questions.
At night, a remembrance was held in Firestone-Baars Chapel at Stephens College. Cale Mitchell, executive director of Rain, began the ceremony as he stood in front of a single red candle, lit and surrounded by a white cloth with a red ribbon across the front.
"There are more new HIV positive people in the last year than I have ever experienced, and they’re getting younger and less educated," Cale said. "We need to have conversations for them, conversations about protecting ourselves."
The need for conversation was the theme of the night. Kevin Clohessy of the Trail to a Cure organization, stressed that HIV and AIDS need to be talked about personally — that the stories people tell "need to be real to people."
"Take risks to talk about it," Clohessy said. "If we take the risk to tell, story by story and person to person, lives will be changed."
Before leaving to participate in the procession down College Avenue, attendees participated in a moment of silence. As community members closed their eyes, some holding hands, a bell rang 27 times to commemorate the 27 years of the AIDS epidemic.
After walking with balloons in hand, attendees met at MU's Bond Life Sciences Center. There, four quilt blocks were on display. Each block, part of the 5,789 that make up The Quilt, is 12 feet across. The Quilt is an AIDS memorial that has blocks on display at approximately 250 different locations.
University scientists were also at the event and held a presentation about the medical aspects of the disease. Roger Worthington, assistant deputy chancellor and chief diversity officer of MU, discussed the AIDS epidemic and the importance of raising awareness and promoting new knowledge through research.
Honoring AIDS research and their loved ones, those in attendance read the names stitched into the quilt blocks, taking pictures and sharing stories. Gregory Lauhoff said that he came to the event to learn more about AIDS and support the cause.
"I have some friends that are HIV positive. Some people see it as something to be ashamed of, but it’s not, and it happens to a lot of people," Lauhoff said. By raising awareness, he hopes more people will be tested.
“I’ve seen too many people just sit back and let it eat at them.”