ITHACA, N.Y. – Cindy Rotella sits at her desk in her office on the second floor of an old blue building, apologizing for the various boxes full of first aid kits, t-shirts and other items full of cycling gear. It’s a busy time for Rotella as she helps prepare for one of her biggest fundraisers of the year.

The blue building on the west end of State Street – what used to be the old Planned Parenthood in Ithaca – is now home to the Southern Tier Aids Program where Rotella works as the Special Events Coordinator. As the 19th annual AIDS Ride for Life approaches, Rotella and other STAP employees are busy making preparations for what she calls the biggest moneymaker of the year.

STAP, now in its 33rd year, began as a response to the local HIV epidemic in 1984. Since then, the organization has grown to provide free and confidential education and outreach services in nine locations to people affected by injection drug use, HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.

The annual bike ride, scheduled to take place in Ithaca on September 9, is geared to make money which will support various programs within STAP. Rotella said approximately 300 cyclists are expected to hit the road this year between indoor teams and the road route around Cayuga Lake.

“We have about 16 states represented in this year’s ride and a couple different countries, and all riders are asked to raise at least $300 – that’s where all the money accumulates with the event, and we’ve even had people raise up to 10,000 dollars,” Rotella said. “We had donations from 44 states and 11 countries last year – I just think that’s so cool and it really tells the story of the reach of this event and the reach of what our agency does.”

Rotella said last year’s ride raised over $200,000, all of which returns to STAP.

“The money that the riders raise all stays at STAP and help support any kind of gaps in funding for many of our programs,” she said. “It’s unrestricted funds so the great thing about that money is that we can use it as needed, versus a grant which may be geared toward a specific program.”

John Barry, Executive Director of STAP, said fundraisers like this one are crucial in making ends meet for the various programs STAP has to offer.

“I’ll often tell people it’s kind of like the driveway sealer for our budget because there’s always a number of places where the funding doesn’t really match up to what the needs are,” Barry said. “You kind of have to spread it over the entire agency and you get to fill in all those gaps.”

Barry pointed to one of STAP’s specific agencies which may benefit from this fundraiser. Identity is an LGBTQ+ youth center located in Binghamton, which was founded in 2008. Identity provides a safe space and offers free services to LGBTQ+ youth, but Barry says between two and a half staff members, renting the space, offering computer and phone services the resources are spread thin, and there is often up to 70 kids in the space at a time.

“The state gives us $125,000 to run that every year – it is not enough money,” Barry said. “Many of the kids struggle with things like food insecurity – that has become a big issue and  I can tell you it’s a prime example of where the money might go, to fill the gap in funding we have every year in that space and then to provide things like weekend meal backpacks for kids we know are in situations where they don’t have access to food.”

Rotella said that while she is often humbled by the large funds that come in with the ride, it’s not all just about the money to her.

“All of our events are very important, they really help create an awareness within our community of what we do – they help to take a lot of the stigma away,” she said. “AIDS and heroin use are not easy subjects to talk about, and people often are more uncomfortable than not. Our events are really a great way to help create a better understanding of the existence of these things, what’s being done about the problem and how our agency deals with them in the community.”

Rotella said in recent years, the ride has been transformed into a weekend event. This year, the 2nd annual AIDS Ride for Life Health & Fitness Expo will be held on September 8 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Stewart Park. Riders can pick up their packets for the weekend and attend the expo aimed to develop a better understanding of health and wellness, including a workshop on the latest health and fitness trends. Several vendors will gather in Stewart Park to showcase new products and services available in the community.

The following day, the ride will kick off at 6 a.m. at Stewart Park. Riders will follow the route along Cayuga Lake and have the option to ride 14, 25, 42, 90 or 102 miles. With 10 pit stops along the way, Rotella said food will be provided to those on their bikes with lots of bagels, peanut butter and oatmeal in early stops for cyclists to load up on carbs, followed by lots of fruit and protein in later stops along the west side of the lake.

The ride will end at Cass Park, which will be followed by a dinner at 5 p.m. in the park for participants and supporters.

Photo courtesy of the AIDS Ride for Life website. 

Alyvia is a Crime Reporter with The Ithaca Voice. She graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and Photography.