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Meet AIDS Run & Walk Chicago ambassadors
by Melissa Wasserman
2017-09-20

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The AIDS Run & Walk Chicago—taking place Sunday, Oct. 1—welcomes people from all walks of life who have been affected by HIV/AIDS.

AIDS Foundation of Chicago assembles a team of ambassadors for the event with the purpose of putting their stories on the forefront to inspire. This year's ambassadors are: Erica Bertrand MacCallum, Armando Ramirez-Guzman and Joel Guzman-Ramirez, Mara Goldman, Simone Koehlinger, Lora Branch and their daughter Kat, Harry Tyner, Vinny Cousineau, Lauryn Scott and Christopher Pazdernik.

Vinny Cousineau

Cousineau is a high school math teacher at North Shore Country Day School. He is HIV-positive and, in 2005, he lost his partner to AIDS. To heal from the loss, Cousineau began on a cross-country road trip to visit every MLB park in the country.

"I was super-regimented in my food and my workouts and I was living a life that was totally dedicated to work and it was kind of weird and unhealthy," said Cousineau of his behavior after losing his partner.

It was the opportunity to travel to Chicago for Gay Games and to Montreal for Outgames in the summer of 2006, Cousineau said, that allowed him to escape to a different environment and not be reminded of his late partner. He added, it was a chance to break out of his rut, while reconnecting with his own interests.

"This road trip and this baseball immersion would be all about me, reclaiming me and I listened to music I hadn't listened to in years and I kept in touch with my family and friends about my experience," said Vinny. "It was me getting away from the memories and me reclaiming stuff that's important to me."

He began the trip, seeing baseball games at all the ballparks East of Mississippi River and in summer 2007 he went west. All throughout he made it a point to touch all the states.

During this trip, he met his current husband, California native Larry Todd ( LT ) Cousineau, in Palm Springs. The relationship began bicoastal and then they moved to Chicago together in 2009. Having had a ceremony in 2011 with family and friends, they then eloped to California for a marriage certificate in 2013.

When they first started dating, Cousineau explained, they bonded over music, politics and their different experiences of losing a partner to AIDS.

The couple both run in the AIDS Run & Walk. Cousineau makes special mention of the shirt he wears to the event. It reads "honoring and remembering" with names in different colors. He learns the stories that belong to each person named and his run is to honor them. The colors, he described, run with him.

Cousineau is a proponent of sharing experiences and will be coming out as HIV-positive to his school this year in an assembly.

"Anything that you share with people to let them have an insight, explains who you are now, how you've ended up here," said Cousineau. "I feel like coming out as gay, coming out as HIV-positive, is just my way of telling people more about who I am and what I've lived through and what I've experienced. That's what I see it as is sharing those aspects of our hidden identities that allow us to find bonds with people that we didn't find bonds with before."

Lauryn Scott

Scott hails from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and now lives in Schaumburg. She was 4 years old when her father passed away from AIDS in the early '90s. Scott said HIV/AIDS was not something people spoke about in her small hometown, so her mother, a nurse, advised her and her older brother to keep quiet about how their father passed away to protect themselves.

For most of my life it was just kind of uncomfortable when HIV or AIDS was brought up, so whether it was in reproductive health [class] or we were learning about the different STDs or AIDS," said Scott. "I can't react the way that I want to, which is hurt because no one's supposed to know that that's how my dad died."

When she was in college at Michigan State University, Scott volunteered for with the Lansing Area AIDS Network, assisting their food pantry where we would provide food to people in the Lansing area who had HIV and AIDS. That, she said, was her first interaction ever with anybody other than her father that was HIV-positive or had AIDS.

Upon moving to Schaumberg, she knew in the bigger city of Chicago that there would be a foundation and she had her sights set on wanting to do more community service. She signed up to volunteer for the AIDS Run & Walk in 2015. She has been an ambassador for the run for the past two years and last year's event was the first time she put her story on public display.

"I felt really comfortable around people that had a similar story, like we were sharing 'I lost my brother, my mother, uncle, father or whatever,'" Scott. "It definitely made me feel comfortable because a lot of the time when I tell people my dad died from AIDS, they don't really know how to react or empathize. Being in that environment definitely made me feel comfortable, so I started volunteering at more events."

Advocacy is something that runs in Scott's family. With her mother being a nurse, she recalled her family would attend a lot of events such health fairs. Her mother, Scott said, was always involved in general health advocacy.

Last year, Scott learned that when her father was in a hospice clinic he was denied care. While it was a common practice during that time, her mother sued to change the hospice's discriminatory policies and won. While her parent's were separated at the time it was her mother's way of making sure that another family or another person would never have that negative experience again.

"Everyone deals with things differently, but for me, I feel that by putting a face to a disease or an illness, that it'll make someone maybe understand it more or be more sensitive to it," said Scott.

Christopher Pazdernik

Pazdernik, from Neenah, Wisconsin, made his theater debut at 6, starring in a summer drama class production of Peter Rabbit. It was then he found his passion.

"I love telling stories, I love hearing stories," said Pazdernik. "Between my love of storytelling and the passion I have for music, I think it was written in the stars that I would be working in musical theater."

Pazdernik works as the artistic director at Refuge Theatre Project and an artistic associate at Porchlight Music Theatre. For the last year and a half, he has also been doing freelance work at a variety of different companies and organizations. Currently, he is the associate producer on a new musical called "The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier." This year he was the recipient of the NON-EQUITY Jeff Award for best direction of a musical. Aside from his theater work, he also serves as the chairperson of the community advisory board at Howard Brown Health.

Feb. 2, 2009 was the day he was diagnosed with HIV.

"I relate that my HIV was sort of like a second coming-out process," said Pazdernik. "After the hamster wheel of me getting comfortable talking about it in public started speeding up, then I started to really look for ways I could give back to a lot of the organizations that had helped me."

Pazdernik intersected his musical theater work with his HIV-advocacy work and, as a result, created his annual birthday concert called "Chris' Birthday Belt Fest" that benefits Howard Brown Health.

"I just couldn't think of anything I'd rather have for my birthday than a room full of these singers singing some of my favorite musical theater songs, while raising money and giving back to Howard Brown at the same time," he said.

In addition, four years ago, he began participating in the AIDS Run & Walk with a team and for the past two years has been an ambassador.

"It's the most beautiful and tangible reminder that I'm not alone and there are other people out there that are living with the same illness and there are even more people than those of us living with it who are willing to support us and fight for us and fight for an AIDS-free generation at some point in the future and it's just that soul boosting reminder that you are not alone with thousands of people walking miles and miles on a Saturday morning," said Pazdernik of the event.

To learn more about Lauryn Scott, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTjdx36q_P4.

To learn more about Vinny Cousineau, visit: http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/AFC-softball-couple-on-relationship-work-and-PrEP-awareness-/53350.html.

To learn more about Christopher Pazdernik, visit: https://www.broadwayworld.com/chicago/article/Announcing-the-3rd-Annual-CHRIS-BIRTHDAY-BELT-FEST-Duets-Edition-20170418.

To learn more about AIDS Run & Walk Chicago, visit: events.aidschicago.org/site/TR .


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