SAN DIEGO - Thousands of people took part in the 24th annual AIDS Walk & Run in Balboa Park Sunday morning to raise money for organizations that provide support to the about 12,500 San Diego County men, women and children with HIV or AIDS and to raise awareness about local testing and treatment resources.
Heather Arculeo is among the San Diegans living with the disease.
"I didn't believe the diagnosis," she said. "We just don't think about those things in our daily lives. We just think we're immune."
She was tough, but she was not immune. She was a Marine Corps firefighter at Camp Pendleton and married with two children when she was diagnosed with HIV six years ago.
"I basically felt kind of alone," she said. "I thought I was going to die and then the not knowing whether my kids had it and how long I'd had it … so that was really scary for me."
The unknown is what race organizers want to wipe away with awareness. The disease has already killed about 7,000 San Diegans. Thousands walked Sunday so that number will not climb.
Event organizers expected more than 8,000 individuals and teams, along with representatives from social clubs, local businesses, school, faith organizations and others to participate in Sunday's events and to remember those who have lost their lives to the disease.
An opening ceremony was scheduled before the races begin with a Zumba Fitness warm up, performances by the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus and DJ Sandra Ware, and the unfolding of the AIDS quilt.
10News was there as it kicked off with a 10K run at 7:30 a.m. Interim Mayor Todd Gloria gave a pre-race pep talk to the 5K participants at 8:30 a.m.
Dozens of teams were signed up for the events, with a few pledging more than $10,000.
Assemblywoman Toni Atkins and City Councilman David Alvarez, who is running for mayor, were scheduled to race with the Democrats for Equality team.
A "Street Challenge" obstacle course with costumed participants at Marston Point is also on the agenda, according to event organizers.
The obstacle course was new this year. It was basically a miniature boot camp, but it had a few twists such as zombies and gladiators who tried to stop participants on the course.
Matthew Sample seemed to enjoy dressing up as a gladiator, but he volunteered because he has been through the emotions after learning his friends have HIV.
Sample said it started with "shock and sadness" but then moved to an understanding.
"It's not a death sentence anymore," he said. "We need to work together to find a cure."
A health and wellness fair will also be held, as will a survivors' exhibit and a memorial garden where attendees can view portions of the AIDS quilt.
Money raised goes to local services such as Christie's Place, which promotes education and awareness about the disease. It is where Arculeo now works when she is not caring for her the three children she now has.
It is estimated that one in five people in the county do not know their status. Click here to keep learning.