Talking the Walk
Father Ken Van De Veen is one pissed-off man of the cloth.
Van De Veen is one of a number of people in Phoenix's HIV/AIDS community who's questioning the administration of last year's AIDS Walk Arizona--a giant fund raiser organized by AIDS Project Arizona (APAZ).
The AIDS Walk is a large, highly public event, sort of a one-stop-shopping occasion to help all of Phoenix's AIDS groups. But there's trouble behind the scenes. Several people from smaller AIDS agencies are unhappy with how the walk is run, and they're making their complaints public.
But this controversy isn't solely over the money. In fact, some of the people complaining--like Van De Veen--got exactly what they wanted. His organization, A Place Called Home, got the $5,000 it requested through a grant application.
Still, Van De Veen says that the walk isn't accountable to the community. Financial information about the walk hasn't been made available by APAZ, he says, and when he and other participants have tried to get answers, they've been brushed off.
"Why is the lead agency unwilling to provide that information [about AIDS Walk funds]? Why do we have to pry it open? We've been asking by letter, we've been asking by phone. . . . Why don't [they] just publish it?" he asks.
The 1997 AIDS Walk made more money than ever, thanks to matching dollars from the Arizona Republic and the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation. This year's walk raised more than $900,000, which, after expenses, was distributed through grants to local AIDS agencies.
Some smaller AIDS organizations were denied grants by the Republic/Tribune funds because they didn't meet certain criteria. But they still got checks from APAZ, which funded them out of its own share of walk monies.
Even so, Van De Veen is one of several who aren't happy.
John Tigner, a board member of Volunteers in Direct Aid (VIDA), also questions the administration of the AIDS Walk. VIDA did not get what it wanted from this year's walk, and Tigner also says he couldn't find out why.
Tigner feels the smaller agencies are "out of the loop" when it comes to the event.
VIDA, which had requested more than $17,000 to help run a voucher program at local grocery stores, got only $3,600.
Tigner also says he could never learn where the rest of the AIDS Walk funds went.
Walk organizers say that they give information to anyone who asks, but no one has. Van De Veen says that's "bullshit."
He says, "One has to believe that there's some sound answers there, and I wish they would do it. It would alleviate a lot of problems for them, and their credibility in the community."
The answers, however, aren't that hard to come by.
Marc Kellenberger, the co-chair of the AIDS Walk and a board member of APAZ, provided New Times with the event's financial statements. And Gene D'Adamo, deputy director of public affairs for the Arizona Republic, produced an accounting of how the Republic/Tribune funds were divided. The funds distributed $755,800 to 14 different local AIDS organizations. (For a specific breakdown, see New Times' Web site, www.phoenixnewtimes.com.)
Kellenberger says he's bewildered by the anger of other people over the walk.
"I think it is an inclusive process. I really don't think it's in the effort's best interest to have groups fighting over this," he says.
The animosity is apparently rooted in a number of personal conflicts within Phoenix's HIV/AIDS community. APAZ members say their critics are jealous or disgruntled ex-employees. And APAZ's critics accuse the organization of mismanaging the walk and trying to shove out other agencies.
Part of this is because the HIV/AIDS community is an insular population existing in a political climate not known for its tolerance and compassion toward people with AIDS. The HIV/AIDS community in Phoenix isn't used to much internal debate, Mark Hoffman, a former APAZ employee, says. And that causes problems when there is disagreement.
"People are frustrated because they don't know exactly what is going on, and at the heart of it, probably nothing that bad is wrong, except that lack of communication," he explains.
Other AIDS groups are desperate to avoid the back-and-forth. Dr. Jeff Whyel, a board member with the Agape Network, told New Times his organization had no concerns about the walk and went so far as to threaten legal action if Agape was even mentioned in any story about the AIDS Walk.
"We've been dragged into this by others," he says.
Kellenberger is also anxious to avoid any controversy, fearing it could affect the AIDS Walk's revenues this year. "People don't need another excuse not to fund this," he says.
But Kellenberger can't resist the temptation to warn other groups about biting the hand that feeds them.
"I have never had an experience where I've given something to someone and had this kind of reaction," Kellenberger says.
Peter Houle, executive director of APAZ, adds, "If I went after the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] because I didn't get a grant, I would get written off."
Officials with the Republic/Tribune funds say that smaller groups do deserve more input into the process and that the 1998 walk will include that.
"Those agencies brought up . . . some very valid points, which the committee will consider next year," D'Adamo says.
In the meantime, all of the groups involved could take a lesson from Artie Michaelis, who, as head of Joshua Tree, feeds HIV/AIDS patients and their families with free lunches and groceries.
Michaelis steadfastly refuses to say a cross word about any other AIDS group. "We're all on the same side," he says. Even though Joshua Tree got less from the walk than it did last year, the group got the $1,700 it requested, and as Michaelis points out, "It's more than we would have had otherwise."
What's important, Michaelis says, are the clients, and that's what people need to remember.
"Take a look around," he says, indicating the crowded lunchroom where he feeds about 100. People are eating and talking and laughing. "You tell me, are we necessary?"
Contact Chris Farnsworth at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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