Ten days. That’s how long doctors told Glen Weinzimer he had left to live in 1993 when he was diagnosed with AIDS.
More than 9,000 days later Weinzimer is not only still alive, but has become a well know activist and fundraising machine for HIV-related non-profits.
It’s safe to say HIV activism and awareness in South Florida would not be the same if the doctors had been right 25 years ago.
This weekend Weinzimer celebrates 15 years of the Smart Ride, an annual two-day 165-mile bicycle ride from Miami to Key West that raises awareness and money for HIV-related non-profits. He launched the ride in 2003.
“It feels incredible from the standpoint of how much money we’ve raised over the years,” he said.
To be exact the ride has raised more than $9.3 million since 2003, which does not include this year. Once those numbers are added the total will likely top $10 million, an astonishing amount considering the last major AIDS ride in Florida actually lost money in its final year.
HIV healthcare has changed though in the 25 years since Weinzimer was first diagnosed, and it has even changed in the 15 years since he founded the Smart Ride. The diagnosis is no longer a death sentence and for the most part it’s a manageable disease.
Even so, Weinzimer said as long as there are people living with HIV, and new infections, there will be need for the organizations that the Smart Ride helps fund. So he has no plans to slow down.
“This is a completely preventable disease, but people are still getting infected. Miami and Broward are two of the top places in the country,” he said.
Florida is second in the nation when it comes to new HIV infections according to the 2016 Centers for Disease Control report, the latest available.
“How do you get to the younger generation? How do we get them to understand? What will resonate with them?,” Weinzimer asked. “We’re in a transition. Those 45 and older remember the worst of the pandemic like Rock Hudson turning into a toothpick dying a horrific death. Today you don’t see that.”
Hudson is an iconic American actor who died from HIV related complications in 1985. He was the first major celebrity to die from an HIV-related illness.
Back then it was easier to scare people with the threat of an HIV infection, Weinzimer said. But now with so many more prevention options available, and the fact HIV can be treated relatively easy, educating carefree youth has become more difficult.
But it’s the younger generation that is more at risk for HIV according to the CDC. The age group that leads the way in new infections is 20-24 year olds. Next is 25-29, then 30-34 year olds. Additionally, men who have sex with men are at more at risk for infection. Black and Hispanic communities are also more at risk.
“A new generation faces the same disease, but they see it different,” he said. “We need to figure out how to pass the torch along to the next generation and figure out what it looks like to them.”
This year’s goal is $1.5 million. Right now they’ve already beat their best year by $100,000.
“Everyone seems pretty energized,” Weinzimer said. “Everyone is fighting.”
Unlike other charitable bike rides the Smart Ride gives 100 percent of the donations raised from the participants to other benefitting agencies.
“We don’t use any of that money to produce the event,” Weinzimer said. Or to pay any of the staffers, such as himself.
Smart Ride has given away a lot of money over of the years. AIDS Help in Key West, Miracle of Love in Orlando, and Metro Wellness Community Center in Tampa have all received more than $1 million dollars.
Some local recipients include Compass, South Beach AIDS Project, and the Children Diagnostic Treatment Center.
“Funds raised from The Smart Ride are crucial resources for our Care Coordinators and Support Workers. Every dollar raised can be quickly applied to help our families at the moment they need it most. Our patients never have to make the choice to forego medical care and set back their health,” said Dr. Ana Calderon Executive Director of CDTC. “The Smart Ride is an amazing resource for the CDTC and the community we serve. The lives of our patients are forever changed and are so much better thanks to the participants’ devotion and dedication to helping those in need and to finding a cure to this devastating disease.”
Last year the ride only raised $830,000 well short of their goal, because Hurricane Irma forced organizers to reschedule the ride until January of this year.
But even that number is still amazing to Weinzimer, considering they only raised $169,000 in 2003.
“We’ve averaged a million a year for the last four years,” he said with pride.
Weinzimer also notes that besides younger people still acquiring HIV in record numbers, long term survivors need help as well.
“There are so many people that expected to die that never did,” he said. “For instance Key West has an aging population of people who gave up their careers thinking they would die. There is still people with great need.”
Each benefiting non-profit helps people living with HIV in a different way.
“Each agency has a different focus,” he said.
About 6 years ago though Weinzimer realized there were a lot nonprofits that do HIV-related work that needed smaller grants for specific programs. In response they launched the 10% Lifeline taking 10 percent of the monies raised off the top and setting it aside to give throughout the year to an organization that needed help.
For instance last year they granted $20,000 to Poverello for a generator so they’d be able to save their food in case they lost power. They also gave a grant to the World AIDS Museum so they could bring 800 school kids to the museum to learn about HIV.
“We wanted to educate the kids so they could make a decision about sex and hear a message that didn’t come from their mother, but a third party,” he said.
How it all began
It was 1995, two years after Weinzimer was told he had 10 days to live, when he participated in his first AIDS ride.
“I went along for the ride. I was really impressed,” he said. “So I started volunteering for them. I have a background in marketing, so it was natural for me.”
Florida’s AIDS rides went through several iterations during those years, first as the Florida AIDS Ride, then the Walgreens Red Ribbon Ride and finally the Sunshine Ride for AIDS.
The Sunshine Ride failed in 2002 because of the high costs of producing it.
“I was angry. Angry at the sponsors. Angry at the agencies,” he said. “It was crazy it wasn’t working.”
Weinzimer wasn’t the only one upset.
“I became pretty disenchanted after the abysmal failure of the Sunshine Ride, which actually lost money,” Annette Yuratovac said.
According to a Sun Sentinel article from 2002 that ride lost about $175,000. But the first three rides, 1999, 2000 and 2001, raised $1.2 million. Organizers at the time blamed it on the post-9/11 economy.
Only 87 riders took part that year. Compare that to this year’s Smart Ride where 500 riders are expected.
Weinzimer used his anger to fuel him to launch his own ride. He learned from the mistakes of other rides and was determined not to repeat them.
Some of the big changes he made included giving a degree of control to the participants for where their money goes; making sure 100 percent of the money raised goes to charity; and lastly not letting any of the agencies own the event.
Weinzimer wasn’t looking to make a career out of the first ride he produced, or even to continue it.
“I only did it to prove a point,” he said. “At the closing ceremonies that year we didn’t even announce another event.”
Many of the people, who had been paid in the past to work previous rides, agreed to volunteer for Weinzimer’s first Smart Ride.
Yuratovac recalls Weinzimer asking “who was in?”
“I raised my hand without hesitation, and from that point forward have proudly been involved in every ride,” she said.
The ride continued. In year 2 they raised $279,000.
In year 4 Weinzimer was ready to give it up and move on. He decided to turn the ride over to the benefiting agencies.
“They really couldn’t agree on anything. Everyone had a conflict,” he said. “Eventually I realized we have to save this. I couldn’t let this go up in flames. So we jumped back in.”
Mark Byrd remembers riding in the original Florida AIDS Ride in 1995. He’s also now been involved with all 15 Smart Rides and serves on its board.
“We wanted for the event to actually help people in need, and for the funds raised not go to production and administration fees,” Byrd said.
That first incarnation of the ride was called Bike It & B.E.A.R. (Because Education Achieves Results), which raised $169,000. The original benefitting agencies included Florida AIDS Action, Broward House, Sarasota CAN, South Beach AIDS Project and the Hug Me Program.
Today the Smart Ride is the second largest AIDS bike ride in the country with more than 500 riders expected to participate this weekend.
Producing the ride though is costly – about $300,000. Since the annual ride takes place over two days the biggest expense is the overnight housing for the crew and riders costing about $80,000. Because every dollar raised goes to the benefiting agencies they have to find money elsewhere to covers the production costs.
“Our ride succeeds on sponsorships,” Weinzimer said.
One such sponsor is Macy’s.
“Macy’s is committed to Making Life Shine Brighter through service to our customers, our communities and our colleagues,” said Jacqueline King, Macy’s spokesperson. “We honored to be a partner with Smart Ride again this year to help raise awareness and make a difference in the lives of those affected by HIV/AIDS.”
Each rider also pays a $95 registration fee that is used to offset the cost of the event.
“Each benefitting agency has to also help find sponsors,” Weinzimer said.
For the past 4-5 years Weinzimer has taken a salary and has two paid part-timers working for him.
Turning 15 the ride may be aging, but for Weinzimer it doesn’t get old.
“On year one during the closing ceremony on the stage in Key West while watching those riders, riding toward me, it was beyond overwhelming especially to think about how these people put their trust me,” he said. “As the years progressed that feeling hasn’t faded. But now I just stand in awe as they approach watching the high fives, the smiles, the celebration. How pumped they are. I don’t think they always grasp the magnitude of what they accomplished. It’s more than just a celebration of two days, it’s the months of work, the training, the fundraising. But standing there is always my proudest moment.”
The Smart Ride takes place Nov. 16-17. To learn more about the annual bike ride visit TheSmartRide.org.