COLUMBIA — Rock Bridge High School held its second annual YouthAIDS Walk on Saturday, raising $14,500 for YouthAIDS, a global HIV/AIDS education and prevention program.
Forty-five participants, including students, alumni and community members walked a combined 900 miles through the hallways of Rock Bridge. The walk ranks as one of the top two fundraisers across the nation this year for YouthAIDS, said Rock Bridge history teacher and walk sponsor Matthew Cone.
"Everybody should take part in it," said Rock Bridge senior Mahir Khan. "You only have to walk 20 miles," Khan said.
His father oversees the regional AIDS center in southern Sudan through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I don't think about it too often because I don't really like to, but my father lives in Sudan right now… I guess this issue has to do with my father and me because he is right there, right now, where everything is happening, and the least I can do — I can't actually go there — is this," Khan said. "So this is one of my other motivations."
Participants were asked to walk 20 miles at the event. Although fundraising fell short of the $20,000 goal, participants still raised twice as much as last year.
“It's inspirational to think of the people who gave so much money,” Rock Bridge senior Sarah Jacobson said. “My feet hurt, but I’m not gonna stop.”
This is the second walk for Rebecca Akutekha, a Rock Bridge graduate and freshman at Anderson University in Indiana. Akutekha, who moved from Kenya five years ago, has firsthand experience with the effects of AIDS. Her cousin died from AIDS in 2004.
"She's part of my motivation to do this,” Akutekha said. "I think of what she went through and how people treated her. That just wasn't right. I should do something to help and to educate people about AIDS so they stop treating people with AIDS like second-class citizens."
Atutekha said even people who don't share her firsthand experiences with AIDS should be concerned about the issue.
"Just because you're not close to someone who is affected by it doesn't mean you shouldn't get involved in it," Atutekha said. “It's a global issue, so it should be a global community effort. We all have a moral obligation to help."
Rock Bridge graduate Mercedes Carter-Cone said she hopes to work for an organization like YouthAIDS someday.
“If I can do this for the rest of my life that’d be awesome,” she said. “We began something that really makes a difference.”
Cone said he was impressed by the students' interest.
“It was a success in spirit, really. The walk completely exceeded our expectations,” Cone said. “It’s not just about how much we raise. I’d be happy if even two kids got really excited about making a difference."
Cone encouraged each student to find 20 people to donate to YouthAIDS. The students received donations from about 650 sources in amounts ranging from $5 to $300.
“There's only one university (George Washington) that is even close to competing with us to have raised the most for YouthAIDS," Cone said. "They may or may not beat us, but we are really the number one or two in the country, and we're competing against universities, fraternities, high schools, everybody, and so we did a fabulous job."
Cone will not be teaching in Columbia next year. He said he hopes another teacher will continue the effort.