At the AIDS Walk San Francisco on July 15, 2018, (from left) Sandy Kovtun, Nita Juelich, Wilma Bass and Vivienne Leibowich (Photo/Courtesy Sandy Kovtun)
At the AIDS Walk San Francisco on July 15, 2018, (from left) Sandy Kovtun, Nita Juelich, Wilma Bass and Vivienne Leibowich (Photo/Courtesy Sandy Kovtun)

Walking for a good cause in S.F. — at age 99

A few physical setbacks earlier this year landed her in the hospital and required some rehab. But 99-year-old Nita Juelich had participated in the AIDS Walk San Francisco for 29 years in a row, and by God, she was going to make it 30.

“Sign me up!” she told her daughter, Sandy Kovtun, who has walked with her every single time.

And this summer, on July 15, the mother and daughter again took part in the 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) fundraising walk that has become one of the signal charity events in San Francisco.

“I think she managed about half a mile,” Kovtun said proudly, noting that her mother has been dealing with balance issues, anemia and poor vision in one eye.

“But she has all her faculties and mentally is in very good shape. Well into her 90s, she was still walking several miles, and it was a real goal for her to do the AIDS Walk a 30th year … She said she’d walk even if it was only 100 feet.”

Because Juelich didn’t know how far she would be able to go this year, she was loathe to get any sponsors, but people who knew that she was participating contributed anyway, raising a total of $1,600 in her name.

That earned her a “Star Walker” crown to wear in the walk; Star Walkers are participants who get at least $1,000 in sponsorships.

Mother, daughter and their walking companions, Vivienne Leibowich and Wilma Bass, are all natives of South Africa. Kovtun emigrated in 1976, and her mother followed about five years later.

When the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit San Francisco, they both began to volunteer with Project Open Hand, a nonprofit that provides meals to seniors and the critically ill. Kovtun, a former caterer, has cooked meals there for more than 30 years. Her mother always helped, and then when it became hard for her to remain on her feet for a long time, she volunteered by labeling food supplies in Project Open Hand’s kitchen.

“Back then, people with AIDS were really stigmatized,” Juelich said, “and participating in the walk was a way to help them by raising money for research in the hopes of finding a cure.”

A longtime resident at Menorah Park, a senior home in San Francisco, Juelich intends to celebrate her 100th birthday on Dec. 7, and — why not? — to do the AIDS Walk again in 2019.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.