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Visionary Patrons: Maureen Ryan and Erik Hepler’s Story

Visionary Patrons: Maureen Ryan and Erik Hepler’s Story

Housing Works has been able to thrive and grow because of generous donors like Maureen Ryan and Erik Hepler, a tremendously giving couple who have been involved with Housing Works since the beginning—Erik since the time the organization was founded—and Maureen since she married Erik in 1999. They each individually have been committed to supporting HIV/AIDS related causes for much of their lives, and are especially committed to the work that Housing Works does not only within the HIV affected, but also the homeless community. We spoke to Maureen and Erik to learn about their dedication to altruism, and their tips for others who want to give back.

How long have you been giving to Housing Works?

Erik: My first encounters with Housing Works were before Maureen and I ever met.

I’ve been donating since the very beginning of Housing Works at the time it was founded. That’s got to be over 20 years at this point. Back in the beginning, they were obviously very small, and to watch them grow, and see what they’ve been able to continue to do has been nothing short of outstanding. For a lot of groups, it’s hard for them to get started and to keep going, but Housing Works never lost sight of anything, and has grown to be a very important group starting from almost nothing in the beginning from when Charles and Keith formed this out of the ashes of the housing committee of Act Up.

Maureen has more of a personal concern in the HIV area than I do. Mine was less personal, but was one of the areas that I devoted my time and money to. The needs of my demographic are not necessarily that big, so it is important to give to other areas, where the need is much greater.

Maureen: When I married my husband in 1999, I got involved with Housing Works.
I’m always interested in any AIDS related charity, as I lost a cousin to AIDS in 1996.

In what ways do you support Housing Works?

Maureen: Most of our support has been financial. When we tell people about the charities that we support, we always bring Housing Works front and center. I think that sadly it’s not one of the more popular charities, so I think they need an even higher profile. If you can do that for them, then that’s the way to go.

Why Housing Works?

Erik: One great thing about Housing Works is that they never hesitate to stick up for what they believe no matter what it cost them. Anyone willing to do that needs support, because they are doing the important thing, and not kowtowing to what anyone thinks they need, even if it does hurt their ability to get funds from the government.

Maureen: You’re dealing with the dual issue of homelessness and people living with AIDS. Even still, people think that homeless people are people who won’t “just go get a job” and “people with AIDS are in that situation because of their lifestyle.” That’s just wrong and uninformed. Everybody would like to find a cure for cancer, and everybody can get behind that, but I don’t think everybody is always aware that this is a problem that is just as important and just as needy, if not more so. I think that for a lot of people, this is an unpopular charity topic.

Why do you think that is?

Maureen: I think there’s a still a huge stigma about AIDS. I think that there are people who don’t care about the subsets of people who get AIDS, so they’re not going to be as motivated to donate to those types of charities. And for those exact reasons, you need more support.

We have a lot of charities that we try to help out to the best of our ability. We continue to believe one person can make a difference. A lot of people need help especially in this economy, and this political climate, who knows what’s going to happen in the next three years, what other funding they’re going to cut.

If you don’t mind, can you talk about your personal tie with the topic of AIDS?

Maureen: My cousin Johnny died of AIDS. We have an interesting family history. I was born in the U.S., so was my cousin Johnny a few years after me. My mom was born in Cuba. Johnny’s immediate family actually went back to Cuba in 1966. In Cuba—for lack of a better term—you’re not allowed to be gay. They send you to a psychiatrist for two years and you’re “cured”, or they put you in jail. He was very persecuted. We finally got him out of Cuba in 1980. He was desperate to come back to the United States because he remembered it from when he was little, and he could finally for the first time, be himself. Soon after, he became infected, and sadly he missed the cocktail by just a matter of months. His partner of 11 years went on the cocktail and he’s still with us today. That was really heartbreaking for us because we got him out of Cuba, and we lost him again.

That’s my family connection. I have friends today who are HIV + who are with us, and it’s a tough life. It’s one that involves taking a lot of medications, and it’s not easy. You add homelessness to that issue, and it’s even tougher.

Erik: Everybody has some sort of a personal connection with AIDS/HIV, but the HIV issue was always an area that I was very concerned about. I had worked on a few pro bono cases, one involving Charles [King] at the time that he was founding Housing Works, enlisting a particular part of the community that wasn’t getting addressed by other people. I thought it was a great idea.

What would you say to others who want to start giving back, but aren’t sure how?

Erik: There is lots of work that needs to be done. There’s tough stuff, there’s simple stuff; you can even work at the thrift shops and give back, or more hands-on volunteering. I give a lot more money now because I have a lot more money now, but I always gave money. People with limited incomes often give a percentage of what they make. Every little bit helps. Time is also enormously valuable to give too.

Why is altruism important to you?

Erik: It’s just part of how life works. There’s a certain social contract that’s out there, and it’s up to us to behave well. Those who can give more should give more to those who have less. That’s the only way that the world that we want to live in can work.

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