Organizers set goal of $500,000 for 20th annual LifeWalk

Organizers hoping for more than 10,000 walkers to gather in Lee Park to raise money for 10 AIDS service organizations in Dallas

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor nash@dallasvoice.com

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY LIFEWALK  |  AIDS Arms recently held a reception at ilume Galleries honoring past and present chairs of the agency’s annual LifeWalk funraiser as part of the buildup to the 20th annual LifeWalk taking place Sunday, Oct. 10, at 1 p.m. in Lee Park. During the event, an unnamed benefactor donated $5,000 to LifeWalk in honor of the past co-chairs. The event also featured eight local artists who had work on display in the gallery.
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY LIFEWALK | AIDS Arms recently held a reception at ilume Galleries honoring past and present chairs of the agency’s annual LifeWalk funraiser as part of the buildup to the 20th annual LifeWalk taking place Sunday, Oct. 10, at 1 p.m. in Lee Park. During the event, an unnamed benefactor donated $5,000 to LifeWalk in honor of the past co-chairs. The event also featured eight local artists who had work on display in the gallery.

About 62 new teams have registered to participate in the 20th annual LifeWalk on Sunday, Oct. 10, according to AIDS Arms Executive Director Raeline Nobles.

“That’s the most new teams in one year that we have ever had,” Nobles said. “We have all our established teams coming back, plus the 62 new teams. That’s a little more than 200 teams total that will be walking.”

And that’s not counting the people who haven’t registered yet and will be walking as individuals instead of with a team.

“A lot of people never join a team. They just show up on Sunday, register on their own and walk. And those individuals usually bring someone with them — a partner or other family member or a friend or a pet. We never know until the day of the walk how many people will be participating,” Nobles said.

She said nearly 10,000 people participated in the 2009 LifeWalk, “and we assume we will meet that number again this year, if not exceed it. We hope we will exceed it, of course.”

The fundraising goal for the 20th LifeWalk is set at $500,000, which will be divided between AIDS Arms, which presents the event, and the 10 other beneficiaries.

“That’s huge, we know. Year before last, we raised $430,000, and last year we just about hit $400,000. The economic recession hit us hard last year, but we are hoping to really bounce back from that this year.”

The fundraising goal for the walk is based on the needs of the beneficiaries, Nobles said. “We tell the [LifeWalk] steering committee what we need, and the committee approves that as the goal. Then they [committee members] have to go out there and make it happen.”

The recession, Nobles said, has impacted AIDS service organizations in more ways than one. While donors have had to cut back on how much they are able to give, agencies are at the same time seeing more people who need help.

“What’s happening, across the board, is that there are just far too many clients needing help than we have the capacity to help,” Nobles said. “All of us [AIDS service organizations] are just way beyond our capacity. All of us need funding to expand that capacity and serve the fast-growing segment of people who are HIV-positive.”

And the proceeds from LifeWalk are especially helpful because the beneficiary agencies can use those funds however they want.

“Grant money is always extremely restricted money,” Nobles explained. “You can only spend grant money on the specific things that the funder has approved. And most often, those grant dollars don’t pay for the tools we need to do our jobs — things like computers, prevention supplies, testing supplies.

“Grant money usually doesn’t cover the costs of expanded media in new formats, those new ways to use new avenues to reach out with education and prevention efforts,” she continued. “For example, here at AIDS Arms, we love to do our ‘Lunch and Learn’ program. It’s where we invite clients to come in and we feed them, and as they have lunch we educate them on some aspect of living with AIDS. But all that goes by the wayside when there are no unrestricted funds available.”

And that’s why LifeWalk is so important. Because the funds it brings in are completely unrestricted.

Nobles said AIDS Arms officials hope to be able to use LifeWalk funds this year to bring in new equipment for the Peabody Clinic.

“We have a long list of equipment we need to diagnose, track and monitor the health of our clients,” she said.

“This time around, cardiovascular care is a huge need in our HIV patients, and we need equipment to be able to respond to that need in a better way. I don’t think the general public really understands that cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 health risk for a lot of HIV patients. That’s particularly true as the patient population ages.

And that makes the management of HIV disease that much more complicated. We have to stay on top of all of it.

You have to treat the whole person.”

Registration for LifeWalk opens at noon on Sunday, and the walk steps off at 1 p.m. Walkers will move up Turtle Creek Boulevard, go through the West Village and then circle through Uptown and back to Lee Park.

There will be activities and entertainment going on throughout the day in the park, including the Buster Brown Band, a DJ playing music, Voice of Pride winner Mel Arizpe, games for the children, food, beverages and more, Nobles said.

Also during the day, in honor of the 20th anniversary, past LifeWalk co-chairs will be recognized from the stage.

“It’s going to be very family friendly, and very dog friendly. There will be several vendors with booths, and there will be a health fair with free HIV testing available on-site all day,” she said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Nobles acknowledged that the reason behind LifeWalk is very serious, and that there are likely to be some sad moments as organizers and participants remember friends and family members who have died.
But the fun side of the event is also important.

“Everyone knows that we do this for very serious reasons, that the epidemic is still killing people and that our dollars are going to help with serious needs,” Nobles said. “But people need to have some relief from that seriousness, too. People get burned out. It’s called ‘compassion fatigue.’ And they need to be able to celebrate life; we need to celebrate the memories of those we have lost and we need to celebrate the lives of those who are living with this disease.

“There are people who have lived with this since the day the epidemic began, and we need to celebrate their lives, their tenacity and their courage,” Nobles said. “And LifeWalk is a great way to do that, because you know that every dollar that comes into LifeWalk goes to programs that directly help clients. Close to 20,000 people depend on the AIDS services organizations in Dallas, and the money from LifeWalk goes to help them. You can make an investment in the future of a lot of people through LifeWalk.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 08, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Partner denied sick leave by AT&T

Bryan Dickenson, left, and Bill Sugg hold hands in Sugg’s room at a rehabilitation facility in Richardson on Wednesday, Jan. 27. (Source:John Wright/Dallas Voice)

Despite 100% rating from HRC, company won’t allow gay man time off to care for ailing spouse

JOHN WRIGHT  |  News Editor
wright@dallasvoice.com

Bryan Dickenson and Bill Sugg have been together for 30 years.

For the last 12 of those years, Dickenson has worked as a communications technician for Dallas-based AT&T.

After Sugg suffered a debilitating stroke in September, Dickinson requested time off under the federal Family Medical Leave Act to care for his partner.

But AT&T is refusing to grant Dickenson the 12 weeks of leave that would be afforded to a heterosexual spouse under the act.

As a result, Dickenson is using vacation time so he can spend one afternoon a week at Sugg’s bedside at a rehabilitation facility in Richardson. But Dickenson fears that when his vacation runs out, he’ll end up being fired for requesting additional time off to care for Sugg. Dickenson’s attorney, Rob Wiley of Dallas, said he initially thought AT&T’s refusal to grant his client leave under FMLA was just a mistake on the part of the company. Wiley said he expected AT&T to quickly rectify the situation after he sent the company a friendly letter.

After all, AT&T maintains the highest score of 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which ranks companies according to their treatment of LGBT employees. And just this week, HRC listed AT&T as one of its “Best Places to Work.”

But AT&T has stood its ground, confirming in a statement to Dallas Voice this week that the company isn’t granting Dickenson leave under FMLA because neither federal nor state law recognizes Sugg as his domestic partner.

“I really couldn’t be more disappointed with AT&T’s response,” Wiley said. “When you scratch the surface, they clearly don’t value diversity. I just think it’s an outright lie for AT&T to claim they’re a good place for gays and lesbians to work.”

Wiley added that he’s disappointed in HRC for giving AT&T its highest score. Eric Bloem, deputy director of HRC’s workplace project, said Thursday, Jan. 28 that he was looking into the matter. Bloem said a survey for the Corporate Equality Index asks companies whether they grant FMLA leave to same-sex couples, and AT&T replied affirmatively.

“I’m not exactly sure what’s going on, so I don’t really want to make an official comment on it,” Bloem said.

Walt Sharp, a spokesman for AT&T, said the company has “a long history of inclusiveness in the workplace.”

“There are circumstances under which our administration of our benefits plans must conform with state law, and this is one of those circumstances,” Sharp said in a written statement. “In this case, neither federal nor state law recognizes Mr. Dickenson’s domestic partner with legal status as a qualifying family member for a federal benefit program. There is no basis for this lawsuit or the allegations contained in it and we will seek its dismissal.”

Sharp didn’t respond to a request for further comment.

Wiley said Sharp’s statement doesn’t make sense. No law prohibits the company from granting Dickenson an unpaid leave of absence, which is what he’s requesting. Wiley also noted that no lawsuit has been filed, because there isn’t grounds for one.

The federal FMLA applies only to heterosexual married couples, Wiley said. Some states have enacted their own versions of the FMLA, requiring companies to grant leave to gay and lesbian couples, but Texas isn’t one of them.

Wiley said the couple’s only hope is to somehow convince the company to do the right thing, which is why he contacted the media.

“At some point in time this just becomes really hateful that they wouldn’t have any compassion,” Wiley said of the company. “I think the recourse is to tell their story and let people know how AT&T really treats their employees.”

Through thick and thin

This isn’t the first time Dickenson and Sugg have endured a medical crisis.

Sugg, who’s 69 and suffers from congenital heart problems, nearly died from cardiac arrest shortly after the couple met in 1980.

At the time, Dickenson was a full-time student and didn’t have car. So he rode his bicycle from Garland to Parkland Hospital in Dallas every day to visit Sugg in the intensive care unit.

In an interview this week at the rehab facility, Sugg’s eyes welled up with tears as he recalled what a Parkland nurse said at the time – “If that isn’t love, then I don’t know what the hell love is.”

“And sure enough, it was,” Sugg said over the whirr of his oxygen machine, turning to Dickenson. “As long as I have you, I can get through anything.”

Dickenson said in addition to visiting Sugg each Wednesday afternoon, he wakes up at 7:30 on Saturday and Sunday mornings so he can spend the day with Sugg at the rehab facility.

This past Christmas, Dickenson spent the night on the floor of Sugg’s room.
“That would have been our first Christmas separated, and I just couldn’t bear that, him being alone on Christmas,” Dickenson said.

The worst part of the whole ordeal was when he had to return to work after taking 13 days off following Sugg’s stroke, Dickenson said. Sugg didn’t understand and thought his partner had abandoned him for good.

“He called me over and over every night, begging me to please come see him,” Dickenson said. “And I said, ’Honey, you don’t understand, I had to go back to work to save my job.’

“That’s what really hurts about what they’ve put me through, not my pain and anguish, but his,” Dickenson said.

Dickenson said it was 3 a.m. on Sept. 22 when he rushed Sugg to the hospital. Doctors initially said it was “the worst sinus infection they’d ever seen,” but within 48 hours Sugg had suffered a stroke affecting his cerebellum.

Sugg lost the ability to swallow and his sense of balance. He’s still unable to walk and suffers from double vision.

Because he wasn’t out as gay at work, Dickenson initially told supervisors that his father was sick.

When he returned to work after 13 days at the hospital, Dickenson explained that his domestic partner was ill and he needed more time off. His supervisor managed to get him an additional 30 days of unpaid leave.

In the meantime, Dickenson phoned the company’s human resources department and asked whether he’d be eligible for leave under FMLA, which allows 12 weeks (or about 90 days) per year. Dickenson said he was told that since he lives in Texas, he wouldn’t be eligible.

Dickenson filled out the FMLA forms anyway and sent them to the company, but he never got any response.

When Dickenson returned to work, he asked to be reclassified as part-time employee, so he could spend more time with Sugg. His supervisor refused and told him his best bet was FMLA leave, even though he’d already been denied.

That’s when Dickenson contacted Wiley.

Sugg is scheduled return to the couple’s Garland home from rehab in about a week, but he’s still on a feeding tube and will require nursing care. With any luck, he’ll someday be able to walk again.

Sugg bragged that he was able to drink his first cup of coffee last week, and he’s looking forward to getting back to his hobby of raising African violets.

Dickenson said he knows of at least seven medical appointments he’ll have to arrange for Sugg once he returns home. He said his vacation time likely will run out by April, and he fears that if he loses his job, the medical expenses will eventually cause him to go broke.

But Dickenson, who’s 51, said he’s committed to taking care of Sugg, even if it means living on the street someday.

“When it runs out, I’ll be fired, and it really hurts to be in a situation like that, because I’ve worked very hard for AT&T,” Dickenson said. “We suffer now, but maybe other people in our shoes in the future, if they work for AT&T, they won’t suffer like we do.”

—  John Wright