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Amy Hemphill Shifts Into High Gear for the Braking AIDS Ride!

Amy Hemphill Shifts Into High Gear for the Braking AIDS Ride!

This September 27-29, scores of cyclists will participate in BRAKING AIDS™ Ride, a 3-day, 285-mile bike ride from Boston to New York City to benefit Housing Works. Last year, 86 riders raised over $220,000 for the agency. This year, one of the crew members will be Amy Hemphill, 41, a freelance TV and film editor and director from Brooklyn. This will be the 16th AIDS ride she’s been involved in. Here, Amy talks about why this ride is so special to her…and what this amazing experience is like for participants!

So wow, you’re 16th ride, huh?

Yep. I did five rides when they were the old Tanqueray AIDS rides, four of the rides from New York to Boston or vice versa, and then a ride to raise money for an AIDS vaccine from Montreal to Portland, Maine. This is my eleventh year on AIDS rides with BRAKING AIDS™ Ride producers.

And this will be your fourth year as a crew member, not a rider, correct?

Yes. Riders need support: Food, hydration, places to stop along the way and be picked up in a van if they’re having a tired or a bad day. Crew members are very important. They make it so that, for riders, your only job is to get on a bike and ride. I always felt incredibly supported as a rider. Now I’m seeing the ride from the other side. We get up at 3:30am and don’t get to bed til midnight, but it’s an incredible experience.

How did you get involved in the rides?

In 1996, my best friend, Jim Paluszak, died from AIDS the year after we graduated from college. He was 23. Then Christmas Day, 1998, my brother, Mason Hemphill, died of AIDS. Housing Works means so much to me because my brother lived most of his adult life homeless. His biological mother was a teen drug addict and he was born with cocaine in his system. He spent most of his life as a chronic runaway. He had mental health issues like so many homeless people. We don’t know for sure when or how he got HIV, but he lived with it for a very long time. I found out about both Jim and Mason being HIV-positive the same time.

I’ve done an AIDS ride every year since 1999 except for one. My first year, a friend designed for me these beautiful badges I wore on a lanyard. He put on them my favorite pictures of Jim and Mason, both of them smiling and full of life. I’ve worn them every year since. Lots of people wear badges of those they’ve lost on the ride. People come up to me and say, “Oh, tell me about your friend, your brother.”

So what is the ride experience like?

Everybody gets so bonded. It’s four days out of the year when I don’t have to explain to anybody what it feels like to have lost people to this disease, but when everybody just wants to do something about it. People still want to apply blame or stigma with AIDS, and for four days, that’s not the case.

The second day of the ride is always the longest. It’s got the biggest hills. We call one of the hills Mt. Eric, after the guy who designed the route. It’s only 3/4 of a mile long but it feels a couple of miles long. It’s hard to even walk on! But people line that hill and cheer us on. It’s amazing. And at the end of Day 2, the super-fast riders who finish first delay their showers to come back and cheer everyone else in.

What are your favorite ride memories?

There was a rider with us for two years named Kyle Spydle. He was a beautiful man, a smile all the time, very fit. All the riders have dinner together. One night at dinner, Kyle stood up and said he was HIV-positive. He’d come to the ride not intending to disclose, but being on the ride had given him the strength to say it for the first time. The next day he rode with a “Poz Peddler” flag, the orange flag flown on the bikes of the people who ride with their HIV status open. Well, Kyle passed away last year a week before the ride—he died of meningitis. But I remember him standing up and saying, “Because of all of you, I had the strength to say out loud that I’m HIV-positive.”

You are also a house-party speaker for the rides. Explain that.

Riders are required to raise a minimum of $3500. If somebody wants to raise money, they can have a fundraising party that I come and speak at. I say, “Hey, look, your friend is not doing a 5K ride. They’re training for six months and taking four days out of their lives. Your donation should match their efforts. Then they say, ‘Wow, here’s my check for $500!’”

Crew members are not required to raise money, but many of us do. I do. I sent out a newsletter to family and friends. This year one of the riders is a terrific Housing Works client named Gerry Brown. So in my newsletter I said, “Donate to Gerry!” One year I raised as high as $6,000. There was somebody who raised $18,000 their first year on the ride. Some people have really good networks!

What do people eat and drink during the ride?

I can’t drink coffee when I ride. It just makes me sick. Any other day I’m a coffee fiend. Some people swear by having a plate of pasta the night before. I don’t know if I’ll ever ride again. I stopped because of some back issues. But it’s a great experience. We pass through town after town where people say, “Hey, why are you riding today?” And we say, “Because HIV/AIDS isn’t over and we’re fighting it.” People have said, “Oh wow, I thought that AIDS was over.”

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