Before June 19, none of the seven members of the Ride Against AIDS team had ever ridden a bicycle further than a handful of miles. By Aug. 21, they will make their way through Boston, having logged around 4,000 miles in their quest to raise money and awareness for HIV/AIDS.
About a third of the way into their ride, it’s so far so good for the team, which took a break in Silverthorne on Wednesday, July 9, for a little R&R.
Striving for a cause
FACE AIDS is a youth-led nonprofit working to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic by raising awareness and building a movement of young leaders. The organization was started in 2005 by Stanford University students working in a Zambian refugee camp. Now it has established chapters at more than 230 colleges and high schools across the United States and raised more than $2.7 million for HIV-affected communities in Rwanda.
Partnering with FACE AIDS is Partners In Health, a health care organization with a global reach, dedicated to bringing modern medicine to patients living in poverty with barriers to health care access.
This is the seventh year of the Ride Against AIDS, which sends a team of college-age bikers from the organization’s San Francisco headquarters across the country to the Partners in Health Boston headquarters.
Not only does the ride act as a fundraiser for the organization, but also as a means of raising awareness of HIV/AIDS across the country. Throughout their journey, the riders take time to stop in communities along the way and give presentations to explain their mission and its importance.
Lesley Zimmer, 21, of Texas is one of this year’s riders with a personal connection to the cause; she has lost two uncles to HIV/AIDS. By joining in the efforts of FACE AIDS both as events coordinator for the University of Texas Austin chapter and in the Ride Against AIDS, Zimmer can tell her story and work to make a difference. During the ride she’s worn a silver necklace to commemorate her uncles, and has found that participating has allowed her to reach other people while at the same time be reached herself.
“It’s been very great for me because I’ve realized there are people who have very powerful stories to tell. It’s been great to connect with them,” she said. “I hope (the ride) inspires people to go and get tested and know their status and know more about the disease.”
Fellow rider Aparna Shankar, 22, of New Jersey has also known someone affected by AIDS. On a volunteer trip to India, she befriended a young girl who was HIV positive and witnessed her struggles, including the hostility of others around her who did not understand her disease.
“I thought that was very, very unfair,” she said. “That really affected me because I had a close relationship with her and I realized that could have very easily been me in her shoes.”
The kindness of strangers
Before the ride begins, each rider is required to raise $10,000. The goal is to reach $100,000 total by the time their tires hit the Boston streets. Many donations come in during the ride, through the presentations the riders make and through people they meet along the way.
“People have just been so open and so caring and so willing to help and offer advice,” said Rachel Picard, 20, of New Hampshire.
Teammate Elizabeth Stockton, 20, agreed.
“One of the most powerful experiences for me is when people see the van and ask if we accept donations and say, ‘I lost my brother to AIDS’ or ‘My best friend is living with HIV,’” she said. “That’s what really keeps us going is seeing that people are thankful that we are doing something and trying to raise awareness of the cause and we’re equally thankful.”
It’s not unusual for strangers to approach the riders along the way, at presentations, their support van, even at the grocery store, offering money, food or verbal support.
“We didn’t run into any hostility,” said Katelyn Stermer, 22, of Illinois “We ran into a lot of hospitality instead of hostility.”
Working as a team
Though each of the riders were strangers at the start, they’ve now become a bonded team. Each one went through an extensive application process in order to be accepted into the ride and now they spend every day together.
“The dinner table is always where the big jokes come out,” said Stermer. She’s also been impressed with the level of ownership she and her fellow riders have been allowed. Unlike other volunteer trips she’s been on, where the schedule is set in stone before the program even begins, most of the everyday details — what time to get up, when to stop for lunch, where to stay — are left up to the riders.
“I didn’t realize how much of it was us deciding,” she said. “It’s all up to us.”
She and the others have enjoyed that challenge. They also face a physical challenge, from minor injuries and mechanical issues to simply pedaling for miles each day. Fortunately, they are there to cheer each other on, whether it’s down the long stretches of Highway 50 in Nevada (often dubbed the “loneliest road in America”) or up Colorado’s steep passes above 10,000 feet.
“Especially when we’re climbing, I think it’s really valuable to stay together in a team,” said Stockton. “Everyone wants to see everyone else succeed. It’s definitely motivating. That’s what gets you to the top.”
After a two-day stay in Summit County, the riders went on to summit Loveland Pass — the highest point along their journey — on Saturday, July 12. Their journey then takes them through Denver, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois and eventually all the way to Boston. The team is keeping an online blog about their journey and accepting donations online at faceaids.fundly.com/the-2014-ride-against-aids-team, with 100 percent of donations going directly to Partners in Health.
“It’s been amazing,” said Jennifer Kim, 18, of the trip so far. “I thought I would be educating people and it’s really other people educating you and touching your heart.”