Trekking 500 miles on a bike from Fairbanks to Anchorage to raise money for an AIDS vaccine may seem philanthropic. To Nikiski resident Margo Chilson, who participated in the ride with her friend Kim Kenyon from New York, the kindness in participating was done to her, not the other way around.
The women biked 500 miles from Fairbanks to Anchorage Aug. 20-25 to help raise money for an AIDS vaccine with the Pallotta TeamWorks Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride, one of three rides that occurs across the United States and Canada. More than 2,000 riders participated in the Alaska ride, all to raise money for a vaccine that would stop the spread of the HIV virus that causes AIDS.
"It seems like people are so far removed from (the issue of AIDS)," Chilson said. "I have children, so I did and do feel so strongly about it. Partly because not many people speak out about it. Though for my children, to see me commit to the ride was part of what motivated me."
Chilson met people during the ride who are infected with HIV, and the positive attitude they had while faced with such an obstacle in their lives was amazing to her, she said.
Chilson and Kenyon participated in the first Alaska Vaccine Ride held last year by working security and safety details in Fairbanks and at the camps along the road. Chilson was asked last year if she would ride in the fund-raiser this year. She said she would if she had a bike.
To her surprise, a $2,000 titanium bike was donated to her and arrived in the mail. And a bike was lent to Kenyon so she would have something to ride in the race as well.
"The kindness we ran into along the way was overwhelming," Chilson said.
Chilson had many ready examples to demonstrate the kindness she experienced. Volunteers helped set up tents for the riders every night. At one stop, a man provided coffee for the riders -- not just regular coffee, lattes.
"Children would come out of their homes waving and telling us 'thank you,' it was very powerful," Chilson said. "Outside of Glennallen it started raining sheets of rain. An older couple stood in the rain and told each person that passed 'thank you.'"
This experience made it easier for Chilson to deal with the tragedy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said, because she believes in the ability of people to care for each other.
"We came away before the 11th knowing what kindness was, having encountered such kindness from a huge group of people," she said. "It was tangible. And as much of a negative impact as the terrorism has had, the bike ride has had a positive impact because I see the kindness possible from total strangers."
During the trek, the riders were faced with the physical strain of completing the journey, as well as other hardships. On the first day out of Fairbanks, Chilson had three flat tires, and during one evening of rain, the women's tent flooded and they tried to bail it out with paper cups.
Hills also posed a challenge. On the third day, the riders faced a seven-mile low incline hill.
As Chilson was considering walking her bike up the hill, she caught up to a group of ladies slowly pacing their way up the hill and singing. They were retired teachers in their 60s. Chilson kept pace with them and made it up the hill.
"Never before in my life would I have ever thought I could do something like this," Chilson said. "Now I've learned a person can pretty much do anything."
In order to participate in the ride, each person needed to come up with $3,600. Chilson and Kenyon have raised $8,900 so far and still have donations coming in.
During the orientation meeting in Fairbanks, a group of scientists who receive money from Pallotta TeamWorks spoke about their work on the AIDS vaccine. One scientist said they were working on their third set of studies and found that the vaccine did recede the AIDS virus in monkeys, Chilson said.
"The ride showed me what people could be like," she said. "There was no pretense of being someone different. I made wonderful friends for life. It wasn't about biking, people were doing it for all different reasons. Mostly people were doing it to send a message that AIDS is a war that needs to be won and to help."
To make a donation, visit www.alaskaride.org or contact Chilson at 776-5789, P.O. Box 7173, Nikiski AK 99635.
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