How gay men are fighting AIDS in Africa
Despite not receiving due credit, when gay men set their minds to it, we can achieve anything. Case in point: our role in defeating AIDS in Africa. This story, among others, showcases our resilience and capability, making it genuinely inspiring.
How Steve Bolinger fought AIDS in Africa [and won]:
How to change the world
Steve Bolinger, once a day trader in Denver, Colorado, envisioned his path leading to New York City, where he would amass wealth in finance akin to the notorious fictional character Gordon Gekko. However, life had divergent plans for Bolinger.
Embarking on an enlightening journey through Australia, Asia, and Europe, Bolinger discovered a new calling on the opposite side of the globe. His dedication to aiding others has spawned small enterprises for those most in need. In this installment of Queer Money®, Bolinger imparts his motivation and journey, transitioning from day trader to the visionary behind a thriving non-profit organization.
How to lose a job and become happier
Bolinger’s roots trace back to Kansas, where, post-college, he delved into the world of day trading for a private investor in Wichita. His days were a whirlwind of trading thousands of shares within mere seconds and minutes. The investor, whose interests Bolinger served, expanded operations, setting up franchises across multiple states where investors could manage their own funds.
A pivotal moment arose when Bolinger was relocated to Denver to spearhead the opening of a new office. Here, amidst the vibrant pulse of the city, he found a haven where he could openly embrace his identity as a gay man. Transitioning from the conservative backdrop of Kansas to the liberal ethos of Denver, Bolinger discovered his tribe, his niche, and the freedom to be himself authentically. Reflecting on this shift, he shares, “I didn’t have to hide anymore, and it felt good.”
The closure of his investor’s venture, initially seeming like a cataclysm, instead unfurled a tapestry of possibilities for Bolinger. Following the cessation of his employment, he embarked on a transformative nine-month journey traversing the globe, immersing himself in diverse cultures and gaining profound insights into his existence. His odyssey commenced in Australia, meandered through the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and India, and culminated in several European escapades.
During his sojourn in Cambodia, Bolinger encountered a soul-stirring encounter that left an indelible mark on his spirit. A chance bond formed with a local motorbike driver blossomed into a friendship, and in a poignant gesture, Bolinger gifted his newfound companion a coat. For this Cambodian man, it marked the first possession of its kind—a symbol of joy that he cherished, wearing it daily and even sleeping in it at night. Witnessing the transformative power of his gesture ignited a profound realization within Bolinger: the confines of corporate America could no longer contain his aspirations. His path now felt inexorably drawn toward a different form of service grounded in uplifting others.
How to change careers
Upon his return from his transformative journey, Bolinger embarked on a quest for international development opportunities. However, he encountered a daunting hurdle: many positions mandated a minimum of two years of living abroad and fluency in the local language. Unwilling to endure further education’s delay and financial burden, Bolinger charted a different course, opting to join the Peace Corps as the most expedient pathway toward his newfound ambition.
His background in agriculture and proficiency in French led the Peace Corps to deploy him to Senegal, where he assumed the role of an urban agriculture specialist tasked with empowering local women to cultivate sustainable urban gardens.
A pivotal moment arrived when Bolinger’s supervisor assigned him a project for the HIV/AIDS hospital. Stricken by the stark reality that many urban hospitals could not nourish their patients, Bolinger spearheaded an initiative through the Peace Corps to supply food to these facilities, alleviating the plight of neglected patients.
The triumph of the urban garden initiative ignited a profound awakening within Bolinger. Despite his previous allure to the fast-paced world of trading, he recognized a more profound calling beyond pursuing wealth and the facade of a glamorous lifestyle.
In Bolinger’s words, “I felt if I left the Peace Corps, returned to the U.S., and got a job, I’d be doing humanity a disservice because I had this gift, an idea in my head, and I could give it to people.” This epiphany ushered in a newfound sense of tranquility in his life.
Driven by his passion, Bolinger relentlessly searched for organizations dedicated solely to fostering sustainable gardens within local communities. Faced with a dearth of such initiatives, he resolved to fill the void himself. Rallying support from fellow Peace Corps volunteers, Bolinger laid the groundwork for his vision, eventually founding Development in Gardening (DIG).
Upon his return to the United States, Bolinger navigated the bureaucratic labyrinth to establish DIG as a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, securing initial funding primarily from his network of friends, family, and former colleagues. He acknowledges the pivotal role of the queer community in DIG’s genesis, affirming, “If it weren’t for the ‘gay community,’ DIG wouldn’t exist.”
Armed with $40,000 in seed funding, DIG’s impact reverberated across Africa, garnering widespread recognition and support. Bolinger attributes much of DIG’s success to its grassroots approach, with workers embedded within the communities they serve rather than operating from distant capitals.
For Bolinger, DIG transcends mere philanthropy; it embodies a profound commitment to serving humanity at its most fundamental level.
How to build ‘it’
“Most people want to be a part of something larger than themselves, and we’re giving them that chance,” says Bolinger. DIG is in over ten countries and is in its 13th year. “It now has a life of its own, and I couldn’t stop it if I wanted because of so many supportive people and how many thousands of people it’s affecting.”
Now, grandmothers in African countries are teaching their children how to grow sustainable gardens. Children are learning sustainable gardening in school and teaching their parents. For non-profits that teach HIV education, for example, it can take years to prove the education paid off. “With DIG, you know people ‘get it’ when they show you a tomato or a basket of green beans they’re taking to the market to sell,” Bolinger says.
Not only does Bolinger’s dream teach communities sustainable, organic farming, but it now teaches them how to turn their efforts into small businesses. The lives of HIV patients who were once shunned from their communities are forever changed. Because of their ability to feed and financially support their families with their work, they’re now leaders in their families and business leaders in their communities.
Bolinger gives much credit to those who followed him at DIG for making it what it is today. But it can’t be ignored that the dream of this one-time day trader is to give developing communities nutrition, education, and the opportunity to thrive physically and financially.
On this Queer Money Follow-Up are more ways gay men can change the world:
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We’re David and John Auten-Schneider, the founders of Debt Free Guys and creators of the Queer Money® podcast. We help queer people (and allies) achieve financial, relationship, time, and location freedom by helping them design their Wealth Builder’s Pyramid.