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From its college party beginnings in the 1980s, the Crape Myrtle Festival has become one of the oldest ongoing AIDS fundraisers in the nation.

The Crape Myrtle Festival celebrates 30 years 

Mid-June is not an ideal time for endurance outdoor activities, especially if you're over the age of 40. And yet, on one such day in 2003, Bill Donovan pedaled all alone, nearing the age of 50. He was hitting "that point when you get out on the road on the bike and you just wanna throw the bike in the bushes," he said.

What kept Donovan, then a board member of the Alliance of AIDS Services - Carolina and a participant in its 330-mile Tour de Friends for AIDS awareness, from doing just that? "You are determined to ride on for the people that it helps."

Donovan's motivation came from his involvement in the Raleigh-based nonprofit Crape Myrtle Festival, or CMF, of which he is now a vice chair. The series of educational and entertaining fundraising events will culminate this Saturday, July 31, with the annual gala at Raleigh Convention Center. CMF, now one of the nation's oldest ongoing AIDS fundraisers, looks much different today than it did upon its inception 30 years ago.

The first Crape Myrtle Festival was a lighthearted gathering of gay men in Wilmington that soon became a Chapel Hill backyard tradition for summers in the 1980s. Then the AIDS crisis struck. By the late 1980s, relief organizations had formed even in the Triangle. Tim Simmons, current CMF board chair, or Queen, remembers passing around a hat for donations at the parties he attended from 1984 on. Back then, "you'd write your check directly to the AIDS service agency," he said.

Alan Scott, who became chair in 1990, credits the continuing AIDS crisis with providing the impetus to gain an official nonprofit status. "It shocked us into reality, that we probably don't need to just be having a party ... that seemed a little shallow. 'Is that really what we want to do, is that what we want to be known for?'"

By 1992, the CMF was a federally recognized nonprofit organization, ready to be known for more than just the party and eligible for corporate sponsorships.

Today's events still incorporate traditions from those first summers, but with an added fundraising element. For example, this year's festival included a late-night Miss Bolinwood Pageant at Flex Nightclub in Raleigh, and Donovan remembers the Miss Bolinwood title as an honor, even in the early years and on a much smaller scale. From 1992 until today, some 40 different agencies have received more than $800,000 raised by CMF. Tradition has clearly planted deep roots of powerful impact.

However, fundraising peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s. "I don't know what explains that. It may be the generational thing," Simmons said. He was referring to the generation gap that he described as " over 40, under 40. [Those who are] over 40 have lost men to AIDS, and the others haven't really lost friends to AIDS. They think it's more of a manageable disease today, more of a chronic condition."

The festival's beginnings as a college party and evolution to a structured fundraiser can be confusing for newcomers of the younger generation. "It's a fundraiser but it's also kind of social and community-building as well for the gay and lesbian community. It is kind of both," Simmons said.

It seems as though the festival has left behind its carefree social days and grown up with the men—and now women—involved. As a result, the younger generation may feel a bit left out of the roots planted before they were born. "There's nothing that we've done that's intentional, it's just kind of what you get," Scott said. "Typically, in anything that's a fundraiser festival, you obviously get the people that can afford it."

Simmons is quick to point out that CMF is an "all-volunteer organization, so we do the best we can to target everyone."

Indeed, the organization has consolidated its purpose to primarily fundraising and left the further outreach and community-building to the groups it supports. "We've not done a good enough job trying to make the younger-aged person understand. It's a task that ACRA or AASC tackles, and that's why we deliver money to them. We do better just having a party and raising the money and then letting the specific agencies do what they do best."

Donovan believes CMF's support has created a powerful networking community that inspires all involved to do more, like his own 330-mile bike ride in 2003. He also answered questions about the age gap by pointing to the generational handoff in CMF leadership. "I've seen the organization turn it over two times now to what I call the next generation."

One member of Donovan's next generation is Jaci Field, a current board member. "I think that our purpose has been to target the older, and we'll certainly continue in that direction," Field said about the festival's age gap. "However, the organizations that we fund, their needs are changing and have changed, so we're poised to change with them."

Being poised for change may not translate to relevancy for some in the younger LGBT community. "I think it's esoteric [and associated] with a more professional, older group," Julian Wooten, a 24-year-old graduate student and filmmaker at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at UNC-Chapel Hill said of the CMF.

Wooten has been working on a documentary about the state of the HIV/AIDS movement, and he is familiar with CMF. "For it to be the oldest event of this type, I think there's a disconnect between people that know what it is and that attend and the people that should be there," Wooten said, while nonetheless emphasizing the remarkable contribution CMF has made to the movement.

Perhaps the Crape Myrtle Festival has merely lived up to its name and grown from seedling beginnings to an older, sturdy tree today.

"Young people are more tolerant and more resilient," Scott said. "Maybe one day a lot of this stuff will go away and we'll just have a party again, there won't be any great need."

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