MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - Approximately 10,000 Minnesotans are living with HIV and 300 more are diagnosed every year. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first organization in the state dedicated to supporting them.
Rik Kutcher has been living with HIV for 37 years, but he doubts he would be alive today without the help of the Minnesota AIDS Project.
"Scary, scary and I felt very isolated and alone. I did not know of like health care that was available to me. I did not know where to go see a doctor. I was kind of struggling with paying the rent and with food support and they got me really connected to all of those things," said Kutcher.
The Minnesota AIDS Project was formed in 1983 by gay activist Bruce Brockway, who was the first Minnesotan to be diagnosed with AIDS, and a group of volunteers as a response to the devastation caused by the disease in Minneapolis' gay community.
The initial goals were to support people who were getting sick and dying from AIDS and to prevent the spread of the virus that causes the disease.
"Because remember, at this time, we knew very little about this disease and so the experiences of the people who were living with this virus, they could start to compare notes. How are they feeling? How did this happen? How are they coping with this disease?" said Rainbow Health CEO Jeremy Hanson Willy.
Over the next nearly four decades, the Minnesota AIDS Project developed one of its signature events, the annual AIDS walk, to raise money and awareness and create a sense of community and visibility.
It also did extensive outreach about safe sex and distributed condoms in the gay community, while educating mainstream organizations at the same time.
"It's really a symbol and a representation of people coming together to work for a cause. To work for better health, to take care of ourselves," said Hanson Willy.
A few years ago, the Minnesota Aids Project merged with two other LGBTQIA+ organizations to become Rainbow Health, which still supports people living with HIV.
Kutcher is a peer support coordinator for the group, helping others the way the group helped him.
"There's a legacy of people that came before me that, you know, has allowed me to live as long as I have with it," said Kutcher.