On Thursday, August 19, seven college students rode into Boston, MA, concluding a 67-day, 4,747-mile cross-country bike trip that began in Palo Alto, CA. The 2010 Ride Against AIDS—sponsored by the college-based nonprofit, FACE AIDS—raised over $50,000, all of which was donated to Inshuti Mu Buzima (IMB), PIH’s sister organization in Rwanda and the FACE AIDS programs in Rwanda.
Cyclists Claire Fisher, Shane Hegde, Jason Lupatkin, Kirsten Pufahl, Sanford Roberts, Zane Silver, and Mike Stewart were joined for the last seven miles of their journey by PIH staff and supporters. The group—now nearly tripled in size—wound along the Charles River, riding to the end of Boston’s Long Wharf. There, supporters and onlookers watched as the FACE AIDS riders wheeled their bikes to the Atlantic Ocean, marking the completion of the third-annual Ride Against AIDS. After ceremoniously dipping their front tires into the water—something they did in the Pacific Ocean to mark the start of their journey—Jason, Zane, and Shane coaxed the rest of the group into taking off their riding gear and jumping into Boston Harbor.
“Crossing the finish line in Boston is surreal!” says Austin Keeley, who completed last year’s ride. “For two months each day presented a new challenge, whether biking, logistics, or low spirits. When you arrive in Boston you can’t help but smile, sigh, and celebrate with your friends and family. It's not until you fly back to California that it really begins to hit you what just happened.”
In Palo Alto, five riders from Stanford University were joined by Kirsten, fresh from her graduatation from Illinois Wesleyan University, and Mike, who attends University of Wyoming, rode across 20 states, all in an effort to fight AIDS.
Facing the AIDS epidemic
FACE AIDS was formed in 2005 by three Stanford students—Johnny Dorsey, Lauren Young, and Katie Bollbach—who met while working at a Zambian refugee camp for people living with HIV/AIDS. There they met Mama Katele, a grandmother living with AIDS, who was caring for children affected by HIV in her community. Of the hundreds of HIV-positive people living in the camp, she was the only person willing to speak about her disease. The students knew this crisis would only get worse if more was not done. They began working to teach people about HIV in an effort to remove the stigma surrounding the disease. In 2007, PIH invited the students to expand their efforts into Rwanda, where the two organizations would work together to confront the spread of HIV. This encounter inspired a movement that has directly impacted thousands of Rwandans living with HIV.
Since its inception, FACE AIDS has supported comprehensive health care for Rwandans affected by HIV/AIDS. One of the main ways it has done this is by distributing beaded AIDS awareness pins in the US in exchange for $5 donations. The pins are made by Rwandans who are directly affected by HIV/AIDS—whether they are caring for someone who is HIV positive, or are living with the disease themselves. Each pin comes with the biography and photograph of the person who made it, fostering a personal connection between the person who wears the pin and the person who made it, essentially putting a “face” onto the AIDS epidemic.
Some five years later, with 33 chapters in Rwanda and 211 in the US, FACE AIDS promotes HIV/AIDS education and awareness specifically among high school and college students in the US and Rwanda. FACE AIDS has also raised $2 million for Inshuti Mu Buzima. More importantly, the organization has shown how a group of college friends can directly impact the lives of thousands of people across multiple countries, inspiring a generation of students in the process. FACE AIDS supports “a long-term approach to the pandemic by equipping an entire generation of youth to become life-long leaders in global health, international development, and social justice.”
While infection rates in the US are at about 0.6 percent, currently, 3 percent of people in Rwanda are living with HIV/AIDS. Though this percentage is low when compared to other African countries—nearly 30 percent of Lesotho’s adult population is HIV-positive—the disease has taken a tremendous toll on this already struggling nation. An estimated 90 percent of Rwandans live on less than $2 per day.
In addition to employing those directly affected by the epidemic, money raised by FACE AIDS also provides school tuition assistance to HIV-affected secondary school students, and offers leadership development courses, psychosocial support, and educational opportunities beyond high school to these young adults.
From the road
Rider Kirsten Pufahl’s blog documents nearly each day of the group’s adventures. It is filled with photos of odd signs and historical markers, state and national monuments, and local fairs, like the Italian festival in Youngstown, Ohio and the Machine Shed in Iowa. Read Kirsten’s blog.
As they stopped in cities, towns, and on college campuses, the riders connected with local AIDS awareness groups, college students, and fellow activists. “Sometimes we would tell other people in college things they didn’t already know about AIDS,” said Claire. “And sometimes we’d meet doctors and activists who have been involved in this work for a long time and they would teach us more about HIV and the history of the epidemic.”
“A lot of times our encounters with people were chance encounters,” says Jason. “These meetings have more meaning. People stop us and ask what we are doing and why we are wearing these biking outfits, and we tell them about our ride, we tell them about FACE AIDS.”
One of the questions the riders were often asked was: “Why Africa?” The answer is simple says Mike, “HIV/AIDS is a global fight…it is not confined to one place or one group or people.”
Nearly everywhere the group stopped, people listened. “After hearing about what we were doing, people would thank us,” says Kirsten. They also offered support, from places to sleep to discounted hotel rooms and bike equipment.
Shane said the riders learned a lot about themselves and each other, as it took about six hours for the team to ride the 80 to 120 miles covered each day. “It would just be you and the open road,” said Shane. “You got to thinking about why were are doing this, and what it means, and how we can continue being involved in our communities and worthwhile causes after this summer.” Read Shane’s blog.
Though he is just about to enter his senior year, Mike has already decided that he’ll be able to do the most good by attending medical school and one day offering health care to people in Africa. Claire is focused on recruiting more students into the FACE AIDS organization this coming semester, and “capitalizing on what we’ve done so far this year.”
The 2010 Ride Against AIDS was not without its adventures. There were a few accidents, popped tires, and chains that needed replacing—but in all, it was a success. All Kirsten was able to say was, “I can’t believe we made it.” The riders were ecstatic about finishing—they kept breaking into song—and at the same time there was a sense of sadness as the realization set in that their summer adventure was over. At the same time, their commitment to the cause of fighting HIV/AIDS seemed stronger than ever.
Watch an interview with FACE AIDS founders on the player below: