2 CHS grads join fight against AIDS, homelessness


One is an Iraq War veteran turned writer/activist; the other is a line cook in a four-star restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. However, when it comes to their friendship and their shared commitment to social causes, Blanka Stratford and Katerina Tassiopoulos are just about the perfect match.

Blanka Stratford

The two Canton High School graduates have so much in common, in fact, that when Tassiopoulos thought about doing the 285-mile “Braking the Cycle” AIDS Ride from Boston to New York later this month, she reached out to Stratford, who jumped at the chance to take part in this “monumental effort.”

Described as a “civil rights march on two wheels,” Braking the Cycle is a “scenic and fully-supported, three-day bike ride” that benefits Housing Works, the largest grassroots AIDS organization in the U.S. Now in its tenth year, the ride is set to kick off in Chestnut Hill Park on Friday morning, September 28, and will end with a celebration in New York’s East Village on Sunday, September 30.

Although their participation is not official just yet — they must raise a minimum of $3,500 each in order to ride — Tassiopoulos and Stratford are both eager for the challenge and even more excited to be contributing to a cause such as Housing Works, which focuses on the “dual crises of homelessness and AIDS through relentless advocacy, the provision of lifesaving services, and entrepreneurial businesses that sustain its efforts.”

“[Braking the Cycle] looked like it was right up my alley,” explained Tassiopoulos, who has lived in New York since 2005 and currently bikes 20 miles a day as part of her work commute. “Housing Works believes that when you need to fight AIDS, you need stability. I completely agree with their mission.”

Stratford has similarly strong feelings about the AIDS crisis, noting that she signed up for the ride as soon as she learned about it from Tassiopoulos, a friend of hers going back to their days at the Luce Elementary School and a fellow George Washington University alum.

For Stratford, the event also happened to pair nicely with another cause that she’s passionate about: “Soldiers Are Heroes,” an online community of over 400,000 members that originally began as a response to “defamatory anti-service member pages” that were cropping up on the web — most notably the Facebook group “Soldiers Are Not Heroes.”

“I have personal past experience of being called a ‘poster child’ and ‘propagandist’ for the military and that I had aided the ‘baby killers,’” said Stratford, a former combat photojournalist in the U.S. Army. “So this cause took on a very special meaning to my life.”

Stratford was subsequently chosen as the leader of the initiative and was pondering ways to enhance the image of service members through “constructive work and volunteerism” when Tassiopoulos contacted her about the upcoming ride for Housing Works.

Beyond Stratford’s added goal of improving the image of soldiers, both women also happen to share the same personal inspiration for riding: a mutual friend who is also a CHS graduate and a victim of AIDS. Stratford said this person, who is Tassiopoulos’ best friend, has a “heart-wrenching” story of “love, redemption, and ultimately survival.”

As Tassiopoulos explains on her fundraising page, “I am riding because AIDS is still a present threat to our world. I am riding because the underprivileged can’t get the help they need. Most importantly, I am riding because I believe that being HIV positive doesn’t mean you can’t live a happy and fulfilling life. I know this because I’ve seen my best friend do it.”

For Tassiopoulous, this is a person who she loves “with all of [her] heart,” a “kindred spirit” who she has known for nearly 20 years.

Together they have been through “some damn good times and some very tough times,” including being told that he was HIV positive. That was 10 years ago, and it “hasn’t gotten easier” for him since, said Tassiopoulos.

“He’s battled economic hardship, a car accident, heartache, and of course, AIDS,” she said. “But he doesn’t throw in the towel and give up. He keeps at it. He’s a smart, funny guy who happens to be a great co-worker, brother, son, AIDS awareness speaker, and friend.”

Tassiopoulos, for her part, acknowledged that it was “about time” that she took part in a fundraiser like Braking the Cycle, especially considering what she now knows about the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS.

As for Stratford, she, too, has seen the impact that the disease can have on a person, not only on their “physical well-being, but also their social and economic status.” She has also been searching for ways to “lead by example” and is proud to make Housing Works the first official charity of Soldiers Are Heroes.

As of last weekend, the two friends had collected roughly $1,000 in donations, but they will need to raise another $6,000 by registration day on September 27 in order to both participate in this year’s Braking the Cycle ride.

Whether they reach their target or not, Stratford said they still plan to donate every penny raised directly to Housing Works via their donation pages on firstgiving.com.

In the meantime, both women are doing all that they can to collect the necessary funds, including soliciting donations through Soldiers Are Heroes at www.causes.com/causes/667470-soldiers-are-heroes. They have also set up donation boxes in four Canton locations — Centerfield’s, Golden China, Matt Kelly’s Pub, and Neponset Café — all of which will be available until Monday, September 17.

“I will be returning to Canton to count those donations with a representative of the bar/restaurant, upon which they will be sent to Housing Works,” said Stratford. “For all those who donate, I can’t express enough gratitude.”

Tassiopoulos is also grateful for the support she’s received thus far, although she very much hopes to collect enough to participate in the ride, which she described as “just the kind of challenge for [her].”

“Any help is much appreciated and will motivate me all the more to an easy, fast, and amazing ride,” she said. “I have a feeling this is just the beginning.”

After all, said Tassiopoulos, “If my best friend can push every day, then what’s three days? I’m ready and able. Let’s go!”

To contribute to either rider in support of Housing Works, stop by one of the four participating Canton locations or visit www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/blankastratford/brakingthecycle or www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/katerinatassiopoulos/brakingthecycle.

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