Becky Helton has raised funds and awareness for AIDS Walk Austin every year since its inception in 1988, and she has all the shirts to prove it (well, all except one.)
In the early, pre-internet years Becky prepared for the Walk by writing fundraising letters to friends at work and at her church. “I didn’t know anyone personally who had AIDS, but I hated that people were getting sick and not getting help. There was so much stigma attached to the disease. People were being ostracized; I remember an article appeared locally that really affected me, about a woman working for the City who fell ill and was diagnosed with AIDS. When she returned to work, she found that her desk had been segregated from her co-workers. Back then, even fundraising for AIDS relief was stigmatized by the public.”
So what motivated Becky to get involved with that first, brave Walk (then called From All Walks of Life)? “If you knew Glenn Maxey, you did the Walk.” Maxey had first become involved when quarantine of AIDS patients was recommended by a state legislator. As a legislative aide, Maxey had helped organize the defeat of that proposal, and by 1988 Maxey was the first executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby (now Equality Texas). Once involved at Glenn’s urging, Becky was in for the long haul.
Commitment and the persistence needed to follow through were not new to Becky. Once she saw an editorial in the Daily Texan about the presence on campus of statues of Confederate heroes, but not of Martin Luther King. Right away she and two others started a group dedicated to getting an MLK statue on the UT campus; 20 years later, the statue was dedicated. “If you see the need, you have to act.”
Becky spent most of her formative years in the Middle East, primarily in the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia (her father worked in the petroleum industry.) “I’ve seen what happens when people are not taken care of. Sick people should not have to beg in the streets, which is what I did see. How can we ignore people with so much need? How can our legislators cut funding to agencies helping people in need? I can’t understand how they could do that.”
“People say it is hard to ask for money, but the way I see it, I’m not asking for me, I’m asking for people I love who are HIV+.” Once while raising funds for the Walk she encountered John Lipscomb as he campaigned to become a county court-at-law judge. “I was wearing my Walk t-shirt, and I asked him for a donation. He literally got out his wallet and emptied it, donating it all to the Walk. And he continues to empty his wallet for the Walk if I see him and if I don’t, he donates online. So I get to be the conduit for other people’s generosity. I have no money myself; it’s the donors who are being generous. As Bono said, ‘we get to carry each other.’”
What about that t-shirt missing from her collection? “It was from the second or third Walk. The front had a drawing of a kid with the message ‘I have AIDS, please hug me.’ I thought it was really the wrong message, and I would not wear it.”
As impressive as her record is of participating in all the Walks, it didn’t stop there. “David Smith was how I got involved in the AIDS Ride. I had just finished the Walk; I was about 35 and overweight and really out of shape, huffing and puffing. David was handing out brochures promoting the first AIDS Ride, which was to be 125 miles over two days (now it is a much shorter, one-day event.) David looked me in the eye and said, ‘You can do this!’ I have belonged to David ever since. Only David would have done that: he didn’t see me as overweight—he saw the best in me. Every year since, I have done both the Walk and the Ride.”
Currently Becky is also training for a half-marathon to raise money for the Austin Children’s Shelter. Her goal is 15-minute miles (walking is ok in charity marathons.) This means she will be raising $750 for that project while simultaneously trying to reach her $2,000 goal for the 2015 Walk. “I’m trying to think of something different for the Children’s Shelter fundraising to avoid wearing out my donors. I have an action figure collection, and I may auction that off on eBay to help me reach my goal.”
Her friends know she will be asking them regularly to donate to the mission of AIDS Services of Austin, and they never fail to give. “The AIDS crisis has evolved with new treatment protocols, but people still get sick. Patients still need food that is healthy and easy to eat. ASA prepares home-cooked meals for those unable to prepare it, and the agency provides a Food Pantry for clients who are able to prepare their own food. ASA still needs to assist clients who have lost their jobs when they became ill (it’s still legal to fire people for that in Texas.) The need may appear to be less dire, but the services are still just as needed, and the needs are now much more complex; now ASA works with clients to make sure they have access to healthcare and are taking their medicine regularly and staying healthy. They provide dental services, which are integral to good health. Prevention efforts are just as important today.
“If there were no ASA, where would the AIDS crisis be today in our community? How much worse? We are currently seeing a surge in the infection rate among young people, so we need to do even more—so that in another 28 years we are not still doing this. I don’t want to be doing the Walk in my eighties, although I will if the need is still there.
“Make the world better, and you are part of it. I just want the world to be better, and I want that more than a new dress. But I would like to go to Ireland and participate in the Dublin City Triathlon, which has the coolest medal ever—it’s a piranha!” (The club that produces the triathlon is called the Piranhas.) Becky has done triathlons in Austin, but she is cross training now to be sure she finishes in the pack and not last. “And I might meet an Irishman or two.”