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AIDS Walk New York team leaders open up about loved ones they've lost

AIDS Walk New York team leaders participating to honor loved ones
AIDS Walk New York team leaders participating to honor loved ones 04:05

NEW YORK -- Thousands of people will take to Central Park on Sunday for AIDS Walk New York. Among them will be hundreds of teams remembering loved ones or honoring those living with HIV or AIDS. 

CBS2's Vanessa Murdock spoke with two team leaders about why the event means so much to them. 

Murdock reports Rita Fischer and Wanda Buggs were two women we'd all be lucky to have known. Both made such an impact on the lives they touched that every year people head to AIDS Walk New York with their names emblazoned on their shirts. 

"Wanda, a queen. My best friend, an amazing mother," Shacazia Brown, "In Memory of Wanda" team leader, told Murdock.

Brown shared that she was only 23 when her mom passed away from AIDS in 1996. 

"Once we finally realized what this was, it was just a hush hush, it was stigma, it was 'Shhh don't say that Wanda died of AIDS, because it's going to make the family look bad,'" Brown said. 

A year after losing her mother, Brown said she was on her way to work when something happened. 

"I stumbled on the Fifth Avenue madness. I was like, what is this? I was like, it's making me late for work," she said. "Then I just started seeing, 'In memory of.'"

What she stumbled upon was AIDS Walk New York. 

"It sparked something that I needed to do," she said. 

She too needed to walk "In memory of Wanda." The team started with just a few family members. 

"Each year, my team got bigger, and bigger, and bigger," said Brown.

It grew to be 250 strong. Brown says leading the team opened the door to start her own nonprofit in 2008 -- the SoMWA foundation, which stands for survivors of mothers with AIDS.

"We can never forget that we lost a loved one, but our goal is to support the journey of missing them," she told Murdock. 

SoMWA organized GMHC's first toy drive and holiday party, and hosts Mother's Day boat rides. 

Brown says every time her team shows up for AIDS Walk New York it gives her a "friendly reminder that my mission, it can never end."

In fact, she's expanded her mission into Africa. She's building the SoMWA education center in Kenya and spreading love – a practice she learned from her mother, Wanda. 

Elisa Hallerman describes her great aunt Rita Fischer as a tiny woman with a heart of gold, who declared herself Mamacita Rita.

"I would describe her as a firecracker," Hallerman told Murdock. 

"She was not afraid to use her voice and stand up for what she believed," she continued. "She loved community and she loved her family."

In 1985, Fischer's son Jay started talking about his new friend Michael.   

"So in typical Rita fashion she said, 'Is there something you want to tell me?'" Hallerman said. "She didn't know anyone that was gay."

But she made it her mission to change that. She starting attending a predominantly gay synagogue with her husband, son and his partner, Michael.

"Every week, somebody else was dying of HIV. They ended up losing about 50% of their congregation," said Hallerman. "Immediately, she said, 'No, this is not OK.'"

Hallerman said Mamacita Rita dove in and started raising money and showed up at AIDS Walk New York.

"The first year she did, it was '85-'86, and she raised $300," she said. 

For 30 years, she didn't stop doing "her thing" and raised more than $1 million for GMHC.  

In April 2021, at age 97, Rita passed away. Now, her family will lead "Rita's Team" at AIDS Walk New York this year. 

"We figured this would be a beautiful way to honor her. We could think of nothing more important to her," Hallerman said. 

"What would she say to people to get them to come out and support GMHC at AIDS Walk New York?" Murdock asked. 

Hallerman urged people to get off the couch and participate. 

"There's nothing more important," Hallerman said. 

She said Mamacita Rita would urge everyone to be part of the solution and be part of the love.

CBS2 News is a proud media sponsor of AIDS Walk New York.  We hope you'll join us on May 15th in Central Park to raise awareness, raise money and break the stigma of HIV/AIDS. 

CLICK HERE for more information on GMHC and AIDS Walk New York

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