“Carrying the torch” is taking on a literal meaning as members of student-run philanthropic organization UGA HEROs conclude their 63-mile journey from Atlanta to Athens. Walking with a torch, members are seeking to raise awareness of children with HIV/AIDS.
The fourth annual Torch Relay will end on Oct. 20 at Clarke Central High School, participants will have spent the past week walking with the torch. The event is split into 12 different legs and began at Ponce City Market in Atlanta on Oct. 13.
Georgia is ranked sixth in the nation in reported pediatric and adolescent AIDS cases, and H.E.R.O. for Children is the only organization in Georgia focused solely on quality of life care for children with HIV/AIDS, according to its website. The torch relay is the biggest event the UGA chapter has all year.
Madie Moore, executive director of UGA HEROs, is walking 30 miles in total.
“We are doing as much as we can for the kids, and if we don’t do it, then no one else will, and so that’s kind of what drives me to do it,” Moore said. “If we don’t go out there and attack the day, and raise money for our kids, then they have no other help.”
The children the organization serves live in the greater Atlanta area, where the H.E.R.O. for Children's office is based. Carrying the torch from Atlanta is also a nod to the city’s hosting of the Summer Olympic Games in 1996.
HEROs members want to not only raise awareness, but dispel misinformation about HIV/AIDS.
“Some adults think you can get HIV just by hugging someone, which is crazy,” said Ashley Hegwood, director of events for UGA HEROs. “We want to make sure people understand that and can be more accepting, and there’s still this huge stigma around the disease, especially with kids.”
As the walkers arrive at Clarke Central, the annual UGA HEROs Olympics event will begin, an event hosted for the children the organization serves as a celebration of what HEROs has accomplished over the past year. The 2019 Olympics event is free and open to the public for the first time. Sororities, fraternities and other organizations on campus can form teams to compete in the field day-inspired activities and games alongside about 50 children served by HEROs.
“I think [the walk is] meant as a symbolic journey from Atlanta, which is undoubtedly associated with the Olympics, to our version of Olympics,” said Patrick Femia, the director of communications for UGA HEROs.
By way of opening the Olympics event to the public, HEROs hopes more people from the community come and experience what the organization is about.
“What we’re doing this year is a field day competition, and so different sororities and fraternities and campus teams are getting involved and basically competing head to head to see who can raise the most money for the team and our kids,” Hegwood said.
The Torch Relay began in 2016 as the idea of former UGA student and HEROs member Zachery Cottmeyer.
Cottmeyer’s friend Riley Torbott encouraged him to see the idea through, and pitched it to the organizations executive director, Caroline Scruggs.
“Riley’s a super passionate guy,” Cottmeyer said. “He kind of got wind of my idea and he took it and just ran with it.”
Scruggs saw its potential and endeavored to make it an event. It was her idea to incorporate Torch Relay with the annual UGA HEROs Olympics event. From that point is where the event took off, Cottmeyer said.
In planning the first Torch Relay, Cottmeyer, Scruggs and Torbott met every week to discuss logistics and walked the entire course beforehand.
“[We] weren’t really sure how we were gonna throw it all together, weren’t really sure if it was even entirely safe … but it worked out,” Cottmeyer said.
Over the years, the main focus has been on safety and coordinating rides — trying to walk where sidewalks exist, for instance.
“There’s a lot of logistics that goes into safety, so we definitely made some calls on some areas that we felt weren’t as safe as others,” Moore said. “We don’t let them walk alone by any means.”
In 2019, the organization’s goal has shifted to increasing participation and has set its sights on having 150 people walk in the event, Hegwood said. The number of participants has increased every year, from approximately 65 in 2017 to 110 in 2018.
“It’s hard to truly understand the impact that something so minor as walking 60 miles does for a kid, but that, along with everything we do throughout the year for them, I think means a lot to them,” Femia said.