For HIV-positive triathlete Scott Simpson, hope comes in the form of a few pills that cost just dollars a day.
But for millions of people worldwide, that hope is unattainable. Simpson spends thousands of dollars on antiretroviral drugs every year.
That’s part of the reason he helped launch The Race For Dignity with Dignitas International, to contribute to providing access to life-saving medications for HIV-infected people in developing countries.
“I got involved because of the bare fact that there’s two versions of HIV,” Simpson said. “There’s my version, where I have access to medication and HIV becomes just a chronic manageable disease like diabetes. But if you live in a developing country and you don’t have access to medication, HIV becomes a death sentence.”
To help combat the deadly disease, Simpson visited Crescent School last month, which hosted its own third annual Race For Dignity, along with students from Havergal College, to raise money for HIV treatment and prevention programs. Students in teams of six were asked to raise at least $50 each.
All together, the schools raised more than $20,000 this year, for a total of more than $70,000 since the initiative began.
Simpson shared his story of contracting HIV to put a personal face to the pandemic issue.
“In that instant my life changed,” he told the crowd of about 300 students. “I went from a living person to a dying statistic.”
But he found a renewed sense of optimism when he started his medication, having transformed from a heavy smoker and drinker to a competitive runner and cyclist.
“My doctor wrote me a prescription for (antiretroviral drugs), but he may as well have prescribed me hope,” Simpson said.
Feeling better than ever, Simpson wanted to complete a 13,000-kilometre cycle race across Africa to raise money for Dignitas International. But while training for the Tour d’Afrique, Scott collapsed during an Ironman triathlon and was rushed to hospital. His dream of cycling across Africa was crushed.
A student at the University of Toronto heard Scott’s story and was inspired. The Race For Dignity was born on Dec. 1, 2005, when students from three campuses cycled on stationary bikes and raised more than $9,200.
The outreach director for Crescent School, Mehernosh Pestonji, said the school got involved because they realized they were in a position to help.
“Because we have affluence, it’s our responsibility to care about things going on in the world,” said Pestonji. “The idea is we should be caring about humanity, not just AIDS, and that’s what we’re doing.”
While the Race For Dignity started initially as just a race, it evolved into a full-scale simulation of HIV/AIDS ravaged Malawi, complete with Malawian passports, a clinic where students get tested for HIV, a hospital where they must go if infected, along with a community centre and marketplace.
“Malawi isn’t just about AIDS,” Pestonji said. “There’s life going on there, people are playing … it’s a fun and educational day for kids.”
The central activity is cycling because it’s the main form of transportation in Malawi.
Outreach prefect Tanvir Deol, who is in charge of promoting and organizing student initiatives, believes it’s important Crescent and Havergal students educate themselves about world issues.
“We often get trapped in our bubble, especially at a private independent school, where people are so focused on academics and post-secondary education that you sort of miss out on what’s really happening around you,” he said. “And that’s what I really love about outreach at our school.”
Grade 11 Crescent School student Toms Black said the Race For Dignity changed his perspective on HIV and AIDS.
“I never knew that you could prevent mother to child transmission,” he said. “What I didn’t really think about also is the stigma of it, I don’t have AIDS myself, so I didn’t realize how hard it can be to say ‘I’m HIV positive’ in order to get treatment.”
For Simpson, the best part was seeing his hope inspire a larger undertaking that has helped more than 17,000 Malawians to date.
“This is what I love: the fact that they can take my simple idea of racing across Africa and make it so much bigger, into a real community initiative.”