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Borough Couple Take AIDS Awareness To The Pavement in 250-Mile Bike Tour

Matthew Hersh

In the late 1980s, when Borough Councilman Andrew Koontz started his professional career as a television editor, headlines were dominated by the spread, and the subsequent fear of, AIDS and HIV — the virus that causes the immune deficiency syndrome.

"Around 1989, it just happened that a lot of the work that we did was for stories that were on the subject of HIV," he said, adding that while working as a freelancer in New York City, he had also gotten to know several people who had lost friends to the disease.

When it came to AIDS awareness, Mr. Koontz, who grew up in the Jersey suburb of Chatham Township, said he "was like everyone else," conceding that he was not aware of all of the information that was out there.

Now, with a clearer sense of what AIDS is all about, Mr. Koontz, along with his wife, Laurie Harmon, is getting ready to hit the pavement, literally, for a cause that he has come to support throughout his professional and political careers.

From October 8 to October 10, Mr. Koontz and Ms. Harmon are taking part in the New Jersey Ride Against AIDS, a three-day, 250-mile, charitable cycling trip from High Point to Cape May that benefits several New Jersey AIDS charities.

The couple feels compelled to increase awareness of a disease that is no longer in the headlines and has fallen victim to cultural complacency.

"I think people have become too comfortable with the disease," Mr. Koontz said, "and I think it's important for folks to understand that it is still out there and it is still very dangerous.

"There have been slips, and we're starting to see the numbers rise again, and that's bad."

Mr. Koontz added that in primarily minority, poor neighborhoods, instances of AIDS have been on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 44 percent of the nearly 31,000 males in the U.S. diagnosed with AIDS since 2003 are black. Even more alarming is that 67 percent of the 11,200 American females diagnosed with the disease since 2003 are black.

"People have to get tested, and need to have treatment, but if people don't know that they are HIV positive, the problem will continue," Mr. Koontz said.

Ms. Harmon added that the number of children being born with AIDS in New Jersey is reason enough to spread the word about awareness. A four-state CDC study that included Michigan, New Jersey, Louisiana, and South Carolina found that the proportion of pregnant women voluntarily tested for HIV increased from 68 percent in 1993 to 79 percent in 1996.

The bike ride itself is secondary, of course, but it is in line with a hobby Mr. Koontz and Ms. Harmon took up five years ago. Both are now avid cyclists and chose the Ride Against AIDS as a fitting way to show their support.

"A friend of ours was talking about the ride," Ms. Harmon said, "and it sounded like a really good idea, and he really wasn't taking 'no' for an answer."

Now in its fourth year, the event requires participants to raise $1,500 each, and this year, for the first time, HiTOPS, the teen health center in Princeton, will receive $1,500 from the ride. Other beneficiaries are: The Center in Asbury Park; the South Jersey AIDS Alliance; the New Jersey Women and AIDS Network; the Eric Johnson House; the New Jersey Family-Centered HIV Care Network; the NAMES Project Foundation; the Broadway House for Continuing Care; and Access One, Inc.

The ride will come through Princeton October 9 with a rest stop at the Frist Campus Center on the Princeton University campus from 8:30 to 10 p.m. Students will be on hand to help.

Mr. Koontz and Ms. Harmon will host a wine and cheese fund-raiser this Sunday, September 18, at their home at 70 Spruce Street from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Those intending to attend are asked to RSVP at (609) 252-0264.


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