Rena Letter

Dear Mrs. and Mr. Schewe,

From what I have read about and heard from Wendy, Sara and I could have been good friends. I am also a former scholar-athlete and world wanderer. In fact it was in South Africa, where I spent my junior year abroad (where I remember meeting friends off the Semester at Sea boat in Capetown Harbor) that I developed the passion that led me to you, and ultimately to where I am today. I cannot begin to comprehend your loss.

When I think about critical inflection points over the course of my career, one always stands out as my first. It was there in Capetown. I was 20 years old and had discovered activism. I got involved with a student-led AIDS activist group and every weekend we joined rallies for universal access to HIV medication and protests against the war in Iraq. I found it electrifying – marching through the streets surrounded by people that were literally singing (because they sing at protests in South Africa) for their lives – and also a calling.

Years later I would spend a summer as an intern with the World Health Organization, researching and writing a paper on the psychosocial needs of adolescents and youth living with HIV. I got published but was unconvinced that my recommendations would be useful to anyone or put into practice unless I did it myself. Back in Boston I began to design a program that would test those recommendations in action. I connected with Bill Kubicek of Next Step and together with a group of youth from Boston-area hospitals, designed a week-long, intensive program for young people living with HIV focused on their leadership, life-skills and peer community. We would call it the One Love: No Longer Voiceless conference.

We needed funding.

If South Africa was a crash course in finding purpose, grant-writing was a crash course in finding resilience. I got rejected a lot those first few months and I took the blows hard. I nearly gave up many times. Then Wendy and Sara’s Wish Foundation came along. Whether you knew it or not, you were my first grant and the value of your confidence in me far outweighed any amount of money you could have donated. Your investment told me that someone out there thought I had a good idea. It gave me the confidence to keep going and provided the leverage we needed to crowd in the remaining funds to get that first program off the ground. It was the first time that I had raised money all on my own, for something that I was creating on my own. And it paid off in droves. Eleven years on, One Love has become a lifeline for hundreds of young people living with HIV around the country, and I have not stopped creating or fundraising for things that I believe in since.

I continue my work in global health – and particularly the health of women and youth – to this day. I spent many years leading and advising on the design of youth-led programs and advocacy around the world. I now lead a collective of bold women philanthropists who are helping to catalyze innovation in women’s health through experiential and feminist philanthropy. And I continue to work hand-in-hand with Next Step as a member of the Board of Directors.

I am asking you to consider this proposal to support Next Step, and particularly our One Love program, because biases aside, it continues to be one of the most cutting-edge and effective programs that I have seen for supporting vulnerable young people in finding their worth, their purpose and their community. I am particularly excited about this mentor program because of the potential to take it to scale, not only with young people living with HIV but with any young person who is marginalized or alone. As someone who works with billionaires making seven-figure gifts, I marvel at what Next Step can do with $10,000. Over this last horrific year, the confluence of COVID-19 and systemic racism in our society have played poignant roles in the Next Step community. Some moments this year have been simply awful. We have lost young people to the virus and been unable to run our in-person programs, meaning many youth are deprived of the one week a year when they are in a safe space with others who share in their life experiences. On the other hand, we have seen incredible bright spots this year. The safety and inclusiveness of our community means that we could have deep and thoughtful conversations about race and justice with groups of young people who might live wholly separate lives and experiences (think rural white New Hampshirite meets urban black Bostonian) but are connected by the isolation of disease. We have been able to bring more young people together virtually, from far-flung places and/or who are immobile, who otherwise might not be able to travel to an in-person conference. Like we have over the last 20 years of the turbulence of being a small non-profit, Next Step not only survives but thrives through it all. That is why I believe so deeply in them, and why I ask that you dedicate this award to them.

Thank you so much for investing in me and for considering this proposal.

All my best,