Christopher Pazdernik was filled with fear and shame that day in 2009 when he learned he is HIV-positive.
"I was so embarrassed and terrified; I had no idea what was going to happen next," he said. "At first, I had to come to terms with it myself, just like I did with my sexuality, and honestly, that took a few years. Once I started telling more than just my close friends and family and talking about it more in public, it just got easier and easier."
Flash-forward to 2018Pazdernik is a staunch advocate for the HIV community as a whole, spawned by his "lightbulb moment" when he was on the train and saw an advertisement for AIDS Run & Walk Chicago. He immediately thought he should participate.
"That first year [participating in the event, which is now five years ago], seeing so many people out walking together, fighting against this disease that I live with every day, was just overwhelming. And beautiful. And I've never looked back," he said.
Pazdernik is on the Ambassador Committee for the annual AIDS Run & Walk Chicago, and has organized his own team for the event, which will be held Saturday, Sept. 23, at Soldier Field. The event includes a 5K and 10K run, and a 5K walk, starting with the opening ceremony at 9:30 a.m. Pazdernik is doing the walk.
Pazdernik, who was one of Windy City Times' 30 Under 30 in 2016, serves on the Community Advisory Board at Howard Brown Health, including the past two years as chairperson, and he produces a benefit concert for Howard Brown Health every year, called Chris' Birthday Belt Fest, which features dozens of his friends, who just happen to be musical theatre performers from Chicago, with one other from Wisconsin.
"This fall, I'm also directing a musical set at the height of the AIDS crisis, The Last Session, for my company, Refuge Theatre Project, and we'll be using that production to bring awareness and raise funds for all the terrific HIV/AIDS organizations here in Chicago," he said.
Pazdernik, after learning he was HIV-positive, attended support groups at the Broadway Youth Center which, he said, "[were] critically necessary to me."
He remembers "breaking down and crying during my first session saying, 'I'm never going to want to have sex again.' Over time, it got better. But I needed to be there and hear other people's stories and know I wasn't alone during those early years.
"Now I try to be that kind of beacon and support for other people."
Pazdernik, 32, lives in North Center and primarily works as a freelance artist in musical theatre as a director, choreographer, audition coach, casting director and producer. He also does numerous speaking engagements since moving to Chicago in 2008. Plus, he serves as the artistic director for Refuge Theatre Project and he joined the staff at Porchlight Music Theatre earlier this year as the Company Manager & Casting Associate.
He is originally from Neenah, Wisconsin, and is celebrating 10 years living in Chicago this month.
"I am so excited to spend the day with many of my good friends [during the AIDS Run & Walk Chicago]; the time I get to spend with them during the walk is really special to me," he said. "[I have] overwhelming gratitude [for the event]for my friends who walk with me, for my friend Donica Lynn who sings at the opening ceremonies every year, for all the organizations including the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and their efforts to fight AIDS, and for the opportunity, once a year, to feel like my status makes me part of a community, rather than an outsider."
Pazdernik's team, Option Up, always walks in honor of all the sensational musical theater artists who died at the height of the AIDS crisis. "This year, I'll be thinking about Broadway composer Michael Friedman in particular, who passed away a year ago due to complications from HIV/AIDS," he said.
One of his favorite past AIDS Run & Walk Chicago memories was the 2016 eventwhen it was pouring rain, and yet none of his friends skipped the event.
"We all walked together in the pouring rain and sang lots of show tunes about rain, [including] Don't Rain on My Parade, A Little Fall of Rain, Stranger to the Rain, River in the Rain, the list goes on," he said.
Pazdernik has raised $5,000 each year for the past three years for the event, and he's shooting for the same total this year in hopes of pushing his grand total to $20,000 for the programs at AFC, "and that feels really special," he said.
Pazdernik knows he will, once again, be all tears after the AIDS Run & Walk Chicago when he sees the AIDS Quilt.
"There's this thing called survivor guilt, which is very real for meI don't feel worthy to live at a time where living with HIV is possible, when so many before me weren't given that opportunity," he said. "Why them, and not me? It's rough [seeing the AIDS Quilt], but it helps me connect to the past, which fuels my fire to fight for the future."
To donate to Pazdernik's fundraising through the annual AIDS Run & Walk Chicago, go to: events.aidschicago.org/site/TR/RW/RW18 .