- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
At the peak of the AIDS crisis, Becky Helton remembers hearing about an Austinite who was out of the office for a few weeks. Turns out that person was diagnosed with HIV.
“Their desk was moved to ‘Siberia,’” she recalls. “This is in an office setting, not in a place where anyone would be at risk. It broke my heart to see people so isolated.”
That’s one reason the government employee signed up to help out with AIDS Services of Austin, the pioneering nonprofit that staged its first benefit AIDS Walk in 1988. Helton hasn’t missed one since.
And she won’t miss the 30th edition on Oct. 29, which starts at 11:30 a.m. in Republic Square, heads over to West Fourth Street — along a stretch also known as Bettie Naylor Street, named after the late, fearless activist for LGBT causes — turns left up Congress Avenue and continues around the state Capitol before heading back to the square.
An afterparty follows at neighboring nightclubs with drink sales benefiting the Walk’s fundraising goal. One suspects that no guests, however, will stay for the entire afterparty, which ends at midnight, almost 12 hours after the walk begins.
Helton, who also cycles for the Hill Country Ride for AIDS during the spring, is one of the only participants — perhaps the only single one — who has carefully collected, preserved and continues to wear almost every AIDS Walk T-shirt, going back to the one designed by artist Rejina Thomas back in 1988.
“Looking at the shirts, it’s interesting how society has changed,” Helton says. “The first ones didn’t even say the word ‘AIDS.’ This was a time when people sometimes didn’t come forward because they thought they would be abandoned. (AIDS Services of Austin) said: ‘We will feed you; we will drive you to the doctor’s office.’ Taking someone a homemade meal is as deeply personal as it comes. It means someone cares about you.”
Helton moved around growing up, landing in Austin in seventh grade, 10th grade and then again in college. She studied government at the University of Texas as a prelude to “helping to make things better for people.” After graduating in 1986, she worked for the city and the state. She now helps clients pick out talking books at the Texas State Library Archives Commission.
Back in the 1980s, she says, none of her friends had contracted HIV/AIDS. But she did know openly gay State Rep. Glen Maxey.
“If you knew Glen Maxey, you did the AIDS Walk,” she says with a laugh. “Also, I belong to a big, liberal Methodist church that made it easy to be socially aware. Early on, it was the nuclear freeze, then on to other issues.”
Helton didn’t work directly with AIDS patients, but she found a way to help through sponsored projects.
“I didn’t always have a car or money, but I could walk or ride a bike,” she says. “One reason I always wear the shirts: People will ask me about them in the grocery store. Then, I have an opening to ask them for donations.”
From the beginning, the signature apparel was part of the charitable appeal.
“Back then, if you raised $25 or donated $15, you got the shirt,” she says. “Yes, I even got the sweatshirt for the few days in February when you need one. But actually, I walk because I love the walk and the people it involves and the people it serves.”
In special shelves, she has kept just about all of the AIDS Walk shirts printed so far.
“Only one made me uncomfortable on several levels,” she says. “It pictured a child reaching out and saying: ‘Hug me, I have AIDS.” I didn’t like using a child for that message.”
It’s instructive to examine the original design by Thomas more closely. (Helton wore this shirt on the day of our interview.)
Anchoring the image is circular image that could double as a lifebuoy. From its circumference flow rainbow colors, stylized water, a Japanese art-inspired fish, a ribbon, a live oak leaf and an acorn.
Inside the circle one sees a column titled over what looks like a walkway — it echoes the AIDS Memorial Quilt that was started in 1987 — headed to the horizon over a body of water. Above this is an angled, mask-like face and three flaming hearts.
The only words, other than the artist’s signature and a date, are “From All Walks of Life.” Nothing about AIDS or HIV or ASA.
“This was back in a time when the AIDS Walk attracted protesters,” Helton says. “We don’t have protesters anymore. There never were that many. This is Austin.”
Among Helton’s favorite moments during the annual event comes when it heads up toward the Capitol.
“I love walking on Congress,” she says, “then turning around to see all the people happy and doing good stuff for a change.”