Changed for life… changed for good

Wisconsin AIDS Ride Coordinator Angela DuPont reflects upon her involvement with the ACT Rides and what she’ll take with her as she says goodbye.

Wisconsin AIDS Ride Coordinator Angela DuPont reflects upon her involvement with the ACT Rides and what she’ll take with her as she says goodbye.

On August 10, 2008, I had an introspective moment. At the closing for ACT 6 I realized how, five years earlier, I could never have predicted just how much my life would be changed by this one event: the ACT Wisconsin AIDS Ride. Unbeknownst to me, ACT 6 was my last AIDS Ride. Had I known, I would have hugged the riders, crew, volunteers and steering committee members a little harder.

I’d only recently decided to make event planning a profession when I moved from Texas to Madison about five years ago. I was thrilled to get a job with Madison Festivals, Inc. and work on events such as Kites on Ice, Mad City Marathon (now: Madison Marathon) and the Taste of Madison.

The first year was an eye opener; I never imagined helping pull together these amazing events would take such a toll on me. Looking to downsize, I saw the AIDS Network’s ad for a full-time Events Specialist. “Planning for a cause” was somewhat new to me, but it excited me to be able to apply my skills in ways that would directly affect others in need.

I started at the AIDS Network on March 20, 2006, the first day of spring. By talking to as many people as I could, and through trial and error, I began to get a grasp on what the ACT Rides were all about. I learned that they started out of a labor of love for cycling, for AIDS Network and for the life-changing power of this event. Credit for the idea goes to Palotta Teamworks, a California company that produced a 500-mile bike ride from Minneapolis to Chicago (called Heartland AIDS Ride). But production costs were too high, returns too low, and a group of AIDS Riders and AIDS Network volunteers and staff decided they could do better producing the event themselves, entirely with volunteers. Volunteers also knew that a locally produced event would allow for more community support, which would ensure that a maximum percent of dollars raised would be returned to the people served by the AIDS Network.

The first steering committee had three main goals: to create a ride that was a substantial challenge for riders of all levels, but also fun and safe; to educate the community, raise awareness and teach tolerance about HIV/AIDS; and to raise the highest possible return to AIDS Network. This was achieved through extensive efforts to keep overhead low with corporate sponsorships and in-kind donations of all sorts. Thanks to their perseverance, the event has been able to maintain an average return rate of 89% for several years now. Each year, AIDS Network continues to find new ways to cut costs and encourage participants to raise more funds.

My introduction to the Ride was a whirlwind. Luckily, I had a strong steering committee and volunteers with multiple years’ experience with the Ride and AIDS Network. They helped me piece together my role in all of this. Volunteers on the steering committee handled the route, training rides, food, camps, pit stops and so much more. Professionals volunteered their time as medical staff, massage therapists and chiropractors. My role was to make sure all the parts fit together and keep the Ride on track.

Thankfully, I came in at a good time in the preparation process for ACT 4. All major details had been taken care of by my predecessor. I focused on learning the registration and fundraising systems, assisting with food donations, continuing to recruit smaller sponsors for supplies we needed and furthering my education on what the Ride was all about. I’d heard people say that being on the Ride for four days is the way the world should be all the time—people caring, helping and encouraging each other every step of the way. “Change your life. Change your world.” That was the slogan at the time, and how true it remains today.

Going into my first Ride, I had been told about all the traditions. I knew about Rider Zero—a riderless bike that represented every person we’ve lost or who just couldn’t be with us. Not closely knowing anyone who had been directly affected by HIV/AIDS, I figured I would remain solemn and respectful, but not emotional, during the processional. At opening ceremonies, I watched Rider Zero cross the paths of all our riders and crew. Then, I realized that I knew a lot of people directly affected by HIV/AIDS: everyone there that morning. They wept, remembering their friends and loved ones. I wept because I, too, had a reason to be there.

On that first Ride and in every Ride thereafter, I noticed that every single person truly wanted to be there. Experienced riders were happy because they knew this was like a vacation. Volunteers pampered and fed them amazing food. They received massages every day, and set up camp each night with the gear that more volunteers hauled for them. All the riders had to do was ride. New riders had a look of unexpected elation because, even though they’d read and heard what the Ride would be like, now they were actually experiencing it.

Crew members work hard. Really hard. Some are up at the pre-crack of dawn hammering route signs into the ground to make sure riders don’t get lost along the way. Some are up sweating it out in the kitchen preparing that day’s breakfast or dinner. Others are driving with an inflatable menagerie of creatures attached to the tops of their cars so riders can identify them. Their job is to keep all riders safe, hydrated and accounted for. Thanks to the detailed organization and education the various crew captains go through, the Ride operates like a well-oiled machine, after a few kinks are worked out on the first day.

In addition to creating a great Ride and to raise the highest possible return of funds to the AIDS Network, the other important goal is to educate. A “community” subcommittee visits and invites the communities through which the Ride is routed to participate in and support our event. The Ride primarily travels through small towns because the roads are safer. It is those same small towns that need the most outreach. So, ACT members attend farmer’s markets, speak at churchs and get articles in local newspapers to inform communities what the Ride is all about and why they should embrace the riders. Most towns are extremely welcoming. On ACT 5, the folks of New Glarus were having a Fireman’s Dance. Before the Ride, they invited all the participants to come out and enjoy a beer with them. What Wisconsin hospitality!

By the time ACT 7 begins, I’ll be back in Texas. I can’t begin to list all the amazing people I’ve gotten to know because of this “job.” I’ve met repeat riders, crews and volunteers. Every year I got to meet people joining the event for the first time and shared in their excitement and trepidation. I’ve watched an inexperienced rider get up that first major hill, then the second and the third! They were sweating and almost crying, but by God, they did it! Then, the victory of achievement on their first century day (100 miles) ever! I am in awe of those moments. For some, the fundraising is the most difficult part. Then, at Day Zero (registration before the Ride), someone shares with them a donation to help them meet their goal, and their gratitude, relief and love shines through them.

Just as with HIV/AIDS, the Ride is nondiscriminatory. Every person will take away something meaningful and life changing from this event, and their efforts will ultimately create something meaningful and life changing for someone else. I have no doubt what I am taking with me when I leave Wisconsin. First is the guarantee of lifelong friends. You live in very close quarters with the riders and crew, witnessing and sharing in every tribulation and every victory. Those bonds don’t break easily. There have been several couples who met and fell in love through the ACT Rides. Even the association of being in the ACT community can bring total strangers together in a spirit of camaraderie.

Second, the ACT Ride has taught me that you can accomplish anything. I’ve seen riders who knew they couldn’t make it up that hill, or ride the full 300 miles, or even thought they wouldn’t make their fundraising goal…but they did it! I saw crews work on less than four hours of sleep and still keep smiles on their faces as they served up pancakes to participants.

I also got to witness all the challenges that AIDS Network clients face. Living with this disease is not easy; every day is a challenge. I can’t begin to imagine the initial hopelessness that accompanies a positive test. I have had the sincere pleasure of meeting and getting to know many clients who have the strength and determination to train for and complete the ACT Ride. Their courage will stay with me forever.

Much of AIDS Network’s programs and positions are funded through federal, state and local programs. But for us to continue to grow and customize our services, AIDS Network needs unrestricted funds. ACT is AIDS Network’s largest fundraiser of unrestricted funds, which is what makes its success so critical. Finally, knowing how important this event is to AIDS Network’s continued success as a nonprofit, I will leave the agency with a renewed commitment to volunteering and financially supporting other nonprofits whose causes I support. I will volunteer more. I will find cycling events (probably one-day events under 30 miles for now!) in which I can participate.

It is all of this and more that I learned and will take with me from this one event that changed my life. Over the past three years at AIDS Network, I have come to feel an investment in this event. I often joke that the Ride is my “adopted baby,” since I did not actually give birth to it, but instead, lovingly took it under my wing and helped it to grow. Even though I will be 1,000 miles away, I will track the Ride’s growth and success, I will stay in touch with all the wonderful people I met through it, and it will continue to shape my life in future endeavors. I will be with you, riders and crew of ACT 7, from afar. I can’t wait to see you succeed and step away, changed for life … changed for good.

*Editor’s Note: Angela currently resides in Fort Worth, TX where she recently got married and works as a Marketing Director. The ACT Ride is still going strong as a major fundraiser for AIDS Network. ACT 13 is set for July 30th – August 2nd, 2015.