Ever since I was asked to write a piece for AIDS Foundation Chicago (AFC)’s blog, Inside Story, about my Uncle Kevin, I wasn’t sure where to start. The reminder sat in my phone to ‘write the blog post’ for months. I joined the AFC Associate Board when he was still with us, and now, as I write this, he’s looking down on me from above, or from a tree branch in the form of a bright red cardinal. We lost him to complications of HIV/AIDS, cancer and heart disease in November 2020.
If you know me, you know how important my Uncle Kevin was to me. He introduced me to the world of art and was the reason I was inspired to study graphic design. He was the reason I chose to get involved in philanthropy, back when I served on the Youth Advisory Council for The Trevor Project. He was the reason I got involved with AFC after moving back home to Chicago after graduation from the University of Iowa. He was my favorite person and I miss him every day.
The Art of Life
I remember from a young age being fascinated by the work my Uncle did. He started his own graphic design studio in 1993, Toolbox, Inc., and did a lot of work for HIV/AIDS awareness nonprofits as well as corporate and real estate clients. His office in the Loop was my playground, full of cool antique toys, 80s vinyl, a record player (for dancing of course!) and design tools.
Under his wing, I was fully immersed in the world of art and design - always drawing with my colored pencils and Crayolas, finding his fancy felt tip paint markers from when he was in architecture school. Everything I drew or painted he kept. I specifically remember drawing on some paper plates when I was little - he wound up framing them and hanging them up in his office. When I was a bit older and learning more about design, he showed me how he was taught. Everything was done by hand when he was in school, the type setting, the cutting of letters. No computers. I think that’s what makes me appreciate the craft even more.
I started interning for Toolbox, Inc. during high school and college. My favorite parts of those summers would be when Uncle Kevin and I went on ‘inspiration walks.’ Before a new project began, we would first head to Starbucks, and then the next few hours would consist of going to different shops, lobbies and museums and picking up marketing materials. We would come back, talk about the pieces and get inspiration to bring into our own project. These were always really special to me, and I wish we had more of those walks.
A Commitment to Service
I always noticed that Uncle Kevin was really passionate about causes. He was a champion of policy and advocacy, and he did work for AFC, AIDS Legal Council, Chicago House, Center on Halsted, TPAN and GlaxoSmithKline’s HEP Team. He was also active in Democratic politics and marched for marriage equality in Washington, D.C. Through him, I learned how to combine business and purpose.
I remember very well when everything changed – Kevin’s health complications really never let up from the time he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1995. A cancer diagnosis in 2011 took the struggle to a new level. Cancer treatments that went awry, multiple pneumonias, the inevitable side effects of radiation, heart issues – all these things contributed to him not being able to continue at Toolbox. Our work together stopped.
Team Kevin, as we called our tight-knit family, was in full fight mode for about a decade. We spent a lot of time between hospital visits and stays, all the while learning deep, painful and powerful lessons about the body’s ability to heal (or not), the spirit’s ability to soar (or not) and the reality that medicine and doctors can triumph (or not). Ultimately, Kevin lost his battle in the height of COVID-19, which meant our Team of supporters, including my dad, Grandma, brother and so many friends, couldn’t be by his side. Only my mom (who many considered Kevin’s twin, they were so close) and his amazing husband Michael could be with him those 104 difficult days last summer and fall.
Now, we find ways to keep Kevin in our hearts and minds every day. That’s actually easy because almost everything we do as a family is colored by a memory of Kevin. We all sit on boards and do service work – just like Kevin. We all are politically active and scream from soapboxes – just like Kevin. And we walk and run and dance and fundraise for our favorite causes – just like Kevin.
Walking the Walk
Last year during the pandemic, I participated in the AIDS Run & Walk Chicago's 'Make Your Own' 5K. I walked a 5K every day for a week in October with my friends and family and fundraised over $2,000 for AFC. Kevin was still in the hospital at that time, fighting for his life. I would text him photos of me, my brother Johnny and my friends walking around the city with our AFC gear on. I'd send him words of encouragement and love, and he would always try to text back, or give me that smile from FaceTime with my mom holding the phone.
Being on the AFC Associate Board and serving this year as Co-Captain of our AIDS Run & Walk Chicago team is 100% in honor of Uncle Kevin. As with all my AFC board work, I’ll be fundraising and advocating for HIV treatment, prevention and housing support to help individuals thrive and get us closer to zero new cases of HIV. I wish Uncle Kevin was here to walk with me, but I carry him in my heart.
Hannah Kopach is the Marketing Manager at Trope Publishing Co., a boutique publishing company in Chicago. She previously served on the Trevor Project’s Youth Advisory Council and has extensive experience in nonprofit marketing and design. She brings her passion for philanthropy to the AIDS Foundation Chicago Associate Board and looks forward to advocating for progress across the HIV/AIDS community.
To honor Kevin’s legacy, you can donate directly to Hannah’s AIDS Run & Walk Chicago team here.
Categorized under Inside Story.