Thousands are expected in Hardesty Park on Saturday for the third annual Akron Pride Festival. The themes are diversity and inclusiveness and the musicians, dancers and other performers will celebrate the area’s LGBTQ community.

When the festival launched in 2017, organizers hoped a few thousand people might show up. Instead, more than 10,000 took in the fun. Last year’s crowd was estimated at more than 15,000.

“It’s free. It’s a wonderful atmosphere and it’s really grown since that first year,” said Rebecca Callahan, executive director of the Community AIDS Network/Akron Pride Initiative (CANAPI), and member of Pride's steering committee.

“We’ve had a great turnout not only from Akron and Summit County, but also Stark County, Portage, Medina. People come in from Cleveland and all over the region to have a good time together.”

The day begins at 10 a.m. with the Equality March from Highland Square to Hardesty Park on W. Market St., where the festival runs from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Read more about the festival and related events in today’s Pulse Magazine.)

Akron Pride is the most public and popular event that CANAPI is involved in, but its services run year-round. Callahan and her six-person staff help people living with HIV through testing, counseling and other support services.

The Ohio Department of Health reported that 24,130 people in the state were living with HIV as of the end of 2018. The number in Summit County: 1,490.

“This is a lifelong disease,” said Callahan. “There is no cure, unfortunately, yet. Many people can live a long life with proper care, but there is also a financial burden, and a psychological burden.”

CANAPI’s mission includes eliminating the stigma of having HIV and working to prevent transmission. In addition to its education and outreach services, it distributed more than 15,000 condoms last year.

As an advocate for LGBTQ rights, it also offers a Youth Housing Assistance Program for LGBTQ youth (ages 13-24) living on the street or bouncing from couch to couch. The organization also provides old-school nutritional help, and has a new-school tool arriving in December.

• The Organic Food Pantry is held every other Thursday at CANAPI’s main office at 759 W. Market St. It offers free food to anyone in the area living with HIV.

“Most of the people that we provide services to are lower income, and if you’re living with HIV your body is not absorbing nutrients in the same way as someone who doesn’t have the disease. It’s really important that you have a nutrient-rich diet in order for your medications to be most effective,” said Callahan.

“But that’s hard to do when you have $100 a month to spend on food. You’re eating things that are just filling your stomach. It’s incredibly important for people to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and meats and dairy.”

• The newest tool on the horizon is an app called iCAN. Callahan’s organization is working with software developer Avantia to create an app aimed at helping people achieve “viral suppression.” (People living with HIV on antiretroviral therapy who have an undetectable level of HIV in their blood have a negligible risk of transmitting HIV sexually, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS.)

The iCAN app will help people track their medications and appointments, connect with healthcare services and CANAPI’s HIV care coordinator. The app is scheduled to launch on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day.

 

Believing in humanity

Callahan grew up in rural Carroll County and studied sociology and psychology at Kent State University. She moved to Akron in 1998 to work for Oriana House, the community corrections and chemical dependency treatment agency. She joined CANAPI in 2012 and became its director in July of 2013.

“I care so much because I believe in humanity and know that when we are all equal and living equitably, everyone’s lives will be better,” said Callahan. “And I have a very dear family member who is young and transgender. CANAPI helps me grow to be better and offer more knowledgeable support for both individuals I meet for the first time and for those I love.”

Just as the popularity of the Akron Pride Festival has spiked since 2017, Callahan has also seen an increase in requests for training sessions.

“Over the past three years, a lot more agencies have been asking for training for their staff on how to be more inclusive. They want to know, ‘What does LGBTQ mean? How can we be more responsive to our employees and clients?’ That’s another huge shift in the culture of Summit County.”

Akron is one of about 25 cities in Ohio that has passed comprehensive nondiscrimination ordinances that include sexual orientation and gender identity.

“I just hope we can find the beauty in our diversity and celebrate it,” said Callahan. “Humanity is pretty fascinating. If we all had a little more curiosity, we might like humanity even more.”

For more information on CANAPI, go to www.canapi.org, call 330-252-1559, or send an email to info@canapi.org.

 

Clint O’Connor can be reached at 330-996-3582 or coconnor@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.