By William S. Villafranco, Founder, Villafranco Wealth Management and Footprints in the Sand Foundation
Back in the early 90s, AIDS was on everyone’s radar. It had become a crisis of mass proportion, poised to wipe out hundreds of thousands of people. At that time AIDS was the top priority issue, and bike rides, red ribbon sales and dance-a-thons raised millions of dollars with one goal: finding the cure for AIDS. Two decades later, that goal still has not been realized. While significant advances in treatment have been made, there remains an awful lot of work to be done.
A straight, private wealth manager from New Jersey might seem like an unlikely candidate to get involved in a charity bike ride to benefit New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. I have to credit one of my favorite client’s daughters, Kit Opatut, who came to me raving about her internship at the Center and all of the good work that was going on there. She encouraged me to get involved by joining Cycle for the Cause, the Center’s HIV and AIDS ride. I’ve done charity bike rides before, and have always wanted to make the trip from Boston to NYC, so I said sure, sign me up.
The physical demands of the ride were easy to anticipate, but I didn’t expect to make such powerful connections with the other riders. They were people riding for themselves, for family members and for friends, all happy to talk with me about why they do this year after year. I wanted to know what was so special about the Center; why participate in this AIDS ride specifically? Over and over I heard the same answer: the Center literally saves peoples’ lives.
One guy, Frank, who I had breakfast with every morning, shared with me that his father died of AIDS in the early 80s. Frank connected with the Center later in life when he came out, and again when he needed assistance overcoming substance abuse. Between the HIV and AIDS prevention programming and support services that could have helped his dad, and the helping hand that the Center extended to Frank during his darkest hour, he has seen the Center save lives – including his own. Frank opened my eyes to a community I never really knew and hadn’t paid much attention to.
Others on the ride told me about the youth programing at the Center that gives kids a safe space where they can be themselves, and celebrate who they are, instead of hiding it. As the father of four very special daughters, who has also experienced the loss of a son, this hit home with me in a profound way. The Center and I share the commitment to creating a loving, supportive environment for children that allows them to grow surrounded by acceptance and happiness, instead of heartache.
In the space of three days and 275 miles, it gradually sank in that no one on this ride was any different from me. Maybe I wasn’t technically a part of the LGBT community, but for those three days we were all part of something more than just a bike ride. I had joined a group on a mission – a mission to help keep the Center going, to be a part of securing that “home away from home” that the riders confirmed it is.
Frank made me care, so I made it my goal to get others to care. After a bit of legwork, I’m thrilled to say that I’ve helped secure $50,000 to support the Center, which pushes the Cycle for the Cause final tally well over $500,000. It’s not often that a person gets to have a truly eye-opening experience, and this bike ride was one for me. Now I share the passion and vigor that everyone on the ride had for making sure that the Center is around for a long time to fight the good fight.