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Good Reasons Are Behind the Decision to Join the Red Ribbon Ride

By Becky Roloff, President and Chief Executive Officer
July 18, 2013
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Becky Roloff (center) with some of the other Red Ribbon Ride team

The Red Ribbon Ride is a 300-mile bike ride that serves as the major joint fundraiser for the AIDS organizations in Minnesota. The YWCA has sponsored a team in the ride for the past eight or nine years. There was one especially persistent person who kept asking me to join the team, and I finally decided this was the year to do it. I had wanted to try before, but never had the mental space to really be able to think about and prepare for it. My husband also agreed to do it with an ever-so-slight arm twist. (He is calling it “Tour de Advil.”) So, our team — which includes two of our wonderful past YWCA Board Chairs — will go this morning through Sunday. Watch the weather, and please pray that it holds along our route from Minneapolis, Lake City, Rochester and St. Paul.

In addition to being always being proud to wear a YWCA jersey, I thought this was a good opportunity to share with you why I am really doing this.

I went to a small, wonderful Catholic high school in Dickinson, North Dakota. One of my dearest friends was Tom Helfrich. Tom was the total package: We competed with each other for academic honors, we were on the debate team together, we were in student government together. And then Tom did a lot more. He was an outstanding trumpet player, singer and actor. He dated another friend of mine. On the surface, all was well. A popular guy with everyone.

We all went our separate ways after high school, and lost touch. That is hard to believe with all of the ways to easily communicate today, but we did.

It was many years later that I learned that brilliant, wonderful, kind, talented Tom died in a small trailer in the backyard of his parents’ home in Dickinson. The cause of death was AIDS. He had left to make his way in the world, but struggled to overcome the internal fight of having to live a secret life. I don’t believe he ever finished college. His last job before death was as a short order cook somewhere on the West Coast.

I think back to all that could have been, but wasn’t. When my mother told me he had died, she also sent me several pictures of Tom and our group of friends, taken at our house. I sent them to his parents with a letter of every wonderful experience with Tom that I could remember. We all loved him, but I wonder how loved he felt. So that is Reason #1.

Reason #2 is a man named Bob who also worked in the organization I worked for in 1988. By that time, it was a little more common for people to share their sexual orientation, but it was certainly not common knowledge what AIDS was, or how it was spread. Bob’s team leader came into my office one morning and told me that Bob wanted to tell his teammates that he had AIDS. She asked me what he should say, as he was worried that people would be afraid of him, or not want to be in meetings with him.

We sat down with our HR department and found there were no trainings on AIDS to buy. So we built one, and “piloted” it with all 400 people in my organization. We did it in groups of 20, with Bob and me at every meeting. Everyone needed to learn that they were not going to get AIDS by sitting next to Bob, or accidentally picking up a cup of water that he had drank from, or using the copy machine after he did. And the result couldn’t have been more generous or caring.

That incident triggered the leaders of the company at that time to ask me to be the senior leader for the GLBT Affinity Group within the company. I met ome of the closest and dearest friends I have today through that experience. Bob died, but I knew that, at least for the working hours of his life, he knew he was loved and accepted.

Two children in Nairobi, Kenya, that my husband and I financially support are Reason #3. You only have a chance at these scholarships if one or both of your parents have died of AIDS, and you are a student who can do well in school. The financial assistance, in addition to the tuition and uniforms, pays for a very small box of food each week. In this box is a shampoo-size bottle of cooking oil, a cup of sugar and a small cereal-size box of flour. This meager but critical weekly allotment is enough for this child to be taken in by a relative, usually an aunt. I had the chance to visit these children and their aunts several years ago. It was breathtaking how many families in Africa are led by 10- to 14-year-old children.

AIDS is a real disease that affects everyone — some directly through a family member, some indirectly through a neighbor and colleague. And all of us collectively who endeavor to live on the earth together. Those are the reasons I’m riding.