Glen Weinzimer did not feel well for a year.
He couldn’t sleep, had trouble breathing and found himself leaving work early more often than not.
“In August 1993, I had run out of I-just-don’t-feel-goods,” said Weinzimer, who worked at the Bonaventure Intercontinental Hotel in Weston at the time. “I said, ‘I’m leaving and I don’t know when I’m coming back.’ ”
He went to the doctor, but his doctor couldn’t pinpoint his illness. His last option: Test him for HIV, even though Weinzimer was in a longstanding relationship. Weinzimer’s results returned positive.
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“I had seven T cells and a viral load that was out of control,” he said.
The doctor said he had been infected for at least seven years and predicted he’d only have a week to live. Two decades have passed and Weinzimer is still challenging that prediction.
“I got past the experts saying I wouldn’t make it, and now I feel an obligation for those who are affected,” he said.
It’s why Weinzimer, 53, created the SMART Ride 10 years ago. It is the country’s second- largest AIDS/HIV ride in the nation, after a seven-day ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Cyclists ride 165 miles from Miami to Key West over two days to raise funds for local AIDS/HIV agencies and spread awareness about the disease.
This year’s 10th anniversary ride will commence Friday at dawn at the MorningStar Renewal Center in Pinecrest, ending Saturday night at Duval Street in Key West.
“The first year we had less than 200 people, now we have 900 registered,” said Weinzimer, who created the ride in 2003 to prove a point. “We as individuals really could make the difference. We could raise the money and have 100 percent go to agencies.”
That’s why Leah Payne, 40, an avid cyclist from Tampa who’s participated in the ride since it first began, returns year after year.
“[Other rides] were very impersonal. I raised money and didn’t know where my money was going. It didn’t mean what I wanted it to mean,” said Payne. “I've met a lot of good people. It made fund-raising fun.’’
Funds raised by participants are split in two ways: half goes into a pool to be divided by all the benefiting agencies, and the other half goes toward the agency of the fundraiser’s choice.
This year the ride is benefiting seven agencies across Florida: AIDS Help; Pridelines Youth Services; Children’s Diagnostic and Treatment Center; Pride Center at Equality Park; Comprehensive AIDS Program of Palm Beach County; Miracle of Love, and Metro Wellness and Community Centers.
Marie Hayes, program director of the Comprehensive Family AIDS Program at the Children’s Diagnostic & Treatment Center in Fort Lauderdale, has experienced the difference the SMART ride makes.
Last year her agency raised the most money, more than $140,000.
“Those funds helped us pay for medical care not covered in other ways,” said Hayes, providing bus passes for patients to go to clinics, gas cards, bassinets for moms and extra medicines. “Tangible things that for other people may not be a big deal, but for people that are struggling, that small amount does so much.”
Priya Rajkumar, vice president for client health services at the Metro Wellness and Community Center, whose agency has been with the ride for five years, said she never knew the impact a fundraiser could have until she joined the SMART Ride.
“What’s so special about the SMART ride is, for some people coming in it may not be about HIV, but once there it becomes about it,” she said. “HIV is really not at the forefront like it was in the ‘80s, but it’s bringing HIV back into the minds of people who may not have thought about it.”
That’s critical, Weinzimer said.
“There’s a feeling that it’s a manageable disease, which in some cases it is, but it’s a very expensive disease to control,” he said. “Young people didn’t see the disease in the ‘80s and see people become a mere essence of themselves. They see pharmaceutical ads climbing Mount Everest, and there’s a belief that ‘I’m invincible and it’s not a big deal.’”
Last year the ride raised nearly $900,000; this year, Weinzimer hopes to raise $1 million.
“You have to give yourself a reason why today is not a good day to die,” he said. “I think if it was over tomorrow, I can walk away and say you know what, it wasn’t so bad.”