Thousands of people will joyfully converge in Central Park for AIDS Walk New York on Sunday, May 21. It’s a celebration, a demonstration of solidarity–and for many walkers, a way to keep alive the memory of someone they love.
For Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating some of the incredible women team leaders who’ve been walking for decades now, united by the common desire to honor their family members and friends who lost their fight to HIV and AIDS–and to keep fighting.
“These women really drive it,” says Thom Medrano, GMHC’s coordinator for the teams and walkers. “So many of these mothers and sisters and daughters have been walking for 20 or 25 years. They do it in the name of love, to honor the important people in their life that they’ve lost.”
One of AIDS Walk New York’s most dedicated supporters, Donna Gins, started walking for her brother Howie, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1995. What’s kept her going all these years? “The outpouring of love, empathy and philanthropic nature of many good souls always multiplies,” she says on her fundraising page.
HIV is treatable, but there’s still no cure, so Gins, like so many others, says she keeps walking to raise awareness and funds for HIV testing, treatment, and care. “GMHC is still working hard to protect everyone, and I’m asking for your help,” she says.
Debra Crespo-Lopez also walks for her brother with her team, ASistersLoveForHerBrother. “To The One Who Looks @ Me From The Sky, Frankie! 29 years and we still keep your memory alive!” she says on her fundraising page at AIDSWalkNY.org. “It’s the one way I know you’re close to my heart, by helping others! It’s the one day of the year that my heart bursts with pride because I know you see me! Love u!”
Ada Leon leads Marilyn’s Doves to remember her sister Marilyn Castillo “and all those that lost their lives or battle HIV/AIDS.” Her teammate Lizette Munoz also walks to honor Marilyn, her cousin, as well as “my best friend Luis, the ones who are no longer with us, and those who are still fighting.” They are embarking on their 13th AIDS Walk New York this year.
In Memory of Wanda
The women who’ve been walking for many years are usually mothers and sisters, Medrano says, but one dedicated daughter, Shacazia Brown, started In Memory of Wanda 25 years ago to honor her mother, Wanda Buggs.
Like many memorial teams, In Memory of Wanda team members proudly wear t-shirts emblazoned with her name. But when Brown’s mother died from AIDS-related complications in the mid-1990s, there was a lot of pressure to stay quiet because of the stigma around HIV and AIDS. “It was ‘Shhh, don’t say that Wanda died of AIDS, because it’s going to make the family look bad,’” Brown told CBS New York last year.
Medrano said the women’s teams tend to be “smaller, tight-knit groups,” but In Memory of Wanda has become one of the largest teams since Brown started out in 1996 with a few close family members. Her team has over 250 members now, who do AIDS Walks in New York, Philadelphia, Miami, and Atlanta.
That team-building success empowered Brown to start the SoMWA Foundation in 2008 to support children with parents affected by HIV and AIDS. SoMWA, which stands for Survivors of Mothers With AIDS, is beloved for its holiday toy drives and community events–and now Brown aims to build a community school in Kenya for children with families affected by HIV and AIDS.
AIDS Walk New York’s top all-time fundraisers are both women, and both started walking soon after the Walk began in 1986. Francine Goldstein started her team, A Promise to a Friend, after her best friend was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. “I promised her that I would do everything that I could to make sure that no one else would have to suffer the way that she did,” Goldstein says on her fundraising page.
Since then, Goldstein has resolutely raised almost $846,000, making her the second-highest fundraiser in AIDS Walk New York history. “GMHC was there for my friend 35 years ago and is still helping more than 10,000 individuals and their families cope with this terrible disease,” she says on her page. “I try very hard to keep the memory of my friend alive, but I would not have been so successful over the years if it were not for the generosity of my network of supporters.”
Goldstein is just behind Rita Fischer, who started walking after her son Jay came out as gay in 1985. Fischer had never known an out gay person, so she joined a predominantly gay synagogue with her husband, her son and his partner. After witnessing so many in her congregation dying from HIV, she wanted to help.
The first year, she raised just $300, but her team, Mamacita Rita, went on to collect over $1 million to support GMHC and other AIDS service organizations over the next 34 years. Fischer, who died at age 97 in 2021, never missed a Walk, using a scooter in her later years.
With less than two months to go until this year’s AIDS Walk New York on Sunday, May 21, Goldstein leads the fundraising with almost $50,000 in donations so far. “Thank you for helping me to keep that promise that I made so long ago,” she says.
Join us! Sign up to walk or support your favorite walker at AIDSWalkNY.org. If you need help or have any questions, email Thom Medrano at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (212) 807-9255.