In 2010, I was still relatively new to Florida. My first year in St. Petersburg was spent getting immersed in the LGBT community, enjoying the beautiful sunshine and beginning to find joy in the immense cycling opportunities throughout our area.
In doing so, I heard other riders and new friends talk about this SMART Ride event—a two-day, 165-mile bike ride from Miami to Key West. Having never been to Key West before, my partner and I started to train for the 7th Annual SMART Ride, or Southern-Most AIDS Ride Twenty-ten.
During our training we learned a lot—like don’t attempt to ride 10 miles, no less 165, on a mountain bike. Secondly, and most importantly, we’d learn about this great event that benefits organizations throughout the state serving those who are living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.
I didn’t finish the entire 165-mile stretch that year, but I made it as far as I could, and my partner and I would continue to ride the next three years. We are both still involved to this day. I improved my endurance and speed each year, but the most amazing thing about the event was the “family” we created.
Today, I work for one of those agencies (Metro Wellness & Community Centers) that benefit from the event and have the opportunity to see firsthand the good that the SMART Ride can do in a community. After riding for three years, I’ve moved to the crew side and now spend a fun, yet sometimes physically-exhausting week with folks from across the state as we prepare for 500 cyclists to make their way from Miami to Key West over two days. We’re hopeful those two days come with beautiful views and hopefully a cool breeze at their back later this month.
This year, the 11th Annual SMART Ride is off and peddling once again on Nov. 14-15. Over the course of 11 years, the event has raised over $5.3 million and is the second largest HIV/AIDS bike ride in the country. It’s the only such event that guarantees 100% of all funds raised will go directly back to the HIV/AIDS community.
Beneficiaries include: Tampa Bay’s Metro Wellness and Community Centers, Orlando’s Miracle of Love, The Pride Center at Equality Park and Children’s Diagnostic & Treatment Center, both in Fort Lauderdale, AIDS Help in Key West, Pridelines Youth Services in Miami and FoundCare’s Comprehensive AIDS Program in Palm Beach County.
Lorraine Langlois, CEO of Metro described last year’s SMART ride as “amazing” and life-changing for so many people affected by HIV/AIDS in our area.
The 2013 SMART Ride raised a record-breaking $1,070,101, and Metro received $131,309.47 to assist those in the Tampa Bay area. The funds provided through the SMART Ride help provide assistance for food, clothing, housing, and medications for many in the area living with HIV. It is essential for providing adequate services where there are gaps in state and federal funding.
For instance, just in the past year, Metro Wellness and Community Centers has provided 650 bus passes to clients for transportation to medical appointments, served 320 meals, paid over $8,000 in medical co-pays, and provided nearly $20,000 in client gift certificates that assist with transportation, meals and other basic living needs.
Fellow Tampa Bay rider David Simons told me that he has seen the evolution of the SMART Ride since he attended his first informational meeting on it in 2011.
“It has provided me with an outlet to not only create change in our community, but has allowed me to learn more about prevention and advocacy, and has dispelled some of the fear I associated with HIV,” Simons said.
Simons is part of several riders and teams that represent the Tampa Bay area. 500 riders are expected to participate in the ride this year, coming from throughout the state of Florida and as far away as Hawaii. Riders and crew range in age from 18 to 73 years old and come for a variety of reasons, but all find “family” in the event that does so much for those in our state.
The ride converted Simons into a passionate advocate for a disease he previously felt had little impact in my life, he told me.
As riders and crew across the area gear up for the eleventh annual SMART Ride, I remember the very first year I hopped on my bike—legs a little shaky, not really sure what to expect. Immediately I get pretty emotional, tears well up. I’m reminded of the Margaret Mead quote spoken each year at the event that portrays the essence of our journey as SMART Riders.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
For more information about the SMART Ride or to donate to a rider in our area, visit TheSmartRide.org. Volunteer opportunities are also available through the individual charities participating this year.
Chris Rudisill is the Director of LGBT Community Center Services at Metro Wellness and Community Centers.