One day in 2014, Chris Pazdernik was taking a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) train when they noticed an ad for that year’s AIDS Run & Walk Chicago fundraising event. Five years prior, Chris had tested positive for HIV. At the time, they were left with a lot of insecurities. They didn’t know what kind of support they needed, how to get assistance or what questions to ask their doctor.
Luckily within a few weeks, Chris connected with a case manager at Howard Brown Health. Chris’ case manager helped them learn more about HIV, scheduled their first doctor appointments, signed them up for a newly diagnosed youth support group and connected them with Open Hand Chicago, a food bank that serves Chicagoans living with HIV. After receiving services from Howard Brown Health, Chris felt confident to share their status with their close friends and family, who continued to support them as they navigated living with HIV.
By 2014 when Chris saw the ad for AIDS Run & Walk Chicago, they were empowered and ready to give back to their community. They wanted other people living with HIV to have the same positive experiences they had, so they founded a team for AIDS Run & Walk Chicago called Option Up! Inspired by the musical theatre term “option up,” which means to sing a higher note than written, team members and donors are encouraged to set their fundraising and advocacy goals as high as possible.
Now, Chris is a proud HIV advocate and is preparing to participate in AIDS Run & Walk Chicago for the eighth time this Saturday, Oct. 2 at Soldier Field. They will walk the 5k with their team and co-captain Missy Aguilar to celebrate the Chicago community that is fighting for those living with HIV.
“As someone who is living in 2021 with HIV, my health, wellbeing and life expectancy are so much better because of the people who came before me,” Chris said. “I feel like doing AIDS (Run &) Walk is the way that I can make sure that those people who fought in the darkest days of the epidemic, (that) it wasn’t for nothing.”
Chris is currently the managing and casting director at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre and is active in the Chicago theatre community. Option Up! is composed mainly of Chris’ friends who are fellow Chicago-based musical theatre artists. The team not only participates in AIDS Run & Walk Chicago to support people who are currently living with HIV, but also to remember the many individuals from the theatre community who have lost their lives due to AIDS-related illnesses.
“We walk, in part, in memory of all the people the theatre community lost at the height of the AIDS crisis,” Chris said. “The theatre community was hit especially hard, so that is all part of our journey.”
Last year when the annual AIDS Run & Walk Chicago event was cancelled in order to follow COVID-19 health guidelines, Chris and the rest of Option Up! were still committed to raising funds for the organizations that benefit from the event. They participated by doing a socially-distanced walk along the lakefront and didn’t let the changes they were experiencing deter them from their mission. In all, Chris and their team have raised over $75,000 for AIDS Foundation Chicago (AFC) and its CommunityDirect partners, directly supporting people living with HIV in Chicago.
This year, Chris and the rest of Option Up! are ready to walk again and thrilled to be back at Soldier Field, where they will come together with their Chicago community and continue advocating for and honoring those living with HIV.
“It’s just a huge, beautiful reminder that there are people with big hearts in this world that are there to help people,” Chris said. “It’s a beautiful reminder that I’m not alone.”
To learn more about AIDS Run & Walk Chicago and donate to Chris’ 2021 AIDS Run & Walk Chicago fundraiser click here.