• Vt. AIDS services must do more with less
     | December 01,2013
    Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photo

    Karen Peterson, the new executive director of the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont, is one of many social service workers facing challenges this World AIDS Day.

    When Karen Peterson began work at the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont in 1993, the novice assistant toiled daily in the shadow of a disease that was a certain death sentence.

    Twenty years later, Peterson was just promoted to executive director of the nonprofit group that now supports people through life-saving advances in testing and treatment. So why is her job harder than ever?

    “People think, ‘That doesn’t exist any more — they fixed that,’” Peterson says. “But infection rates have remained unchanged, and more than 20 percent of those with it don’t know.”

    Worse, Vermont’s AIDS service organizations are trying to balance steady caseloads — about 600 people statewide are living with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes the disease — as the federal government shifts its financial assistance from smaller towns to bigger cities.

    “Good medication and good nutrition makes a happier, healthier individual, who in turn makes a more energetic member of society,” Peterson says. “But those of us in rural states have the challenge of finding dollars to continue the work we do.”

    The Brattleboro-based AIDS Project — serving 70 clients in Bennington and Windham counties — has lost nearly one-fifth of its income, lowering its annual budget from almost $500,000 to a little more than $400,000 in the coming year. As a result, the organization was forced to cut a men’s prevention program headed by Peterson’s brother and isn’t filling her old clerical position with full-time help.

    About the only constant at the office is the demand for services.

    “Those at risk already are marginalized by society,” Peterson says. “The stigma and discrimination surrounding AIDS is still with us today, and many don’t know how to access the services available to them. They need advocates. It’s one of the reasons we still need to exist.”

    Peterson was a high school student when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first classified what was then an incurable, fatal disease in 1981. She joined the AIDS Project five years after its founding in 1988 as a six-week, part-time temp.

    “Growing up in Vermont, I hadn’t heard much about AIDS and didn’t know anybody with it,” she recalls. “There weren’t that many clients, and they were with us a short time. We were helping people to die.”

    That changed in the 1990s with the advent of antiretroviral drugs. Since the beginning of the epidemic, some 35 million people have died of AIDS — and now an equal number are living with HIV.

    That latter figure is both good and bad news. At least a dozen or more Vermonters, 50,000 Americans and 2 million people worldwide are newly diagnosed annually. An infection that older generations once feared is now often dismissed as just another sexually transmitted disease.

    “Half of all Americans know someone living with HIV,” Peterson says, “but it’s not in the forefront of young people’s minds.”

    That’s why Vermont’s three AIDS service organizations are speaking out today, World AIDS Day. Vermont CARES — serving Addison, Caledonia, Chittenden, Essex, Franklin, Grand Isle, Lamoille, Orleans, Rutland and Washington counties — is teaming with the People With AIDS Coalition to host a candlelight vigil on the steps of the Montpelier Statehouse at 5 p.m.

    “It’s vital that we reiterate how easy it is to learn your HIV status and get health care to manage HIV if you have the virus,” Vermont CARES executive director Peter Jacobsen says.

    Adds Laura Byrne, executive director of the HIV/HCV Resource Center that serves Orange and Windsor counties: “HIV has fallen off the radar for a lot of people, but it’s still a really serious disease. All AIDS service organizations offer free, anonymous testing.”

    The AIDS Project of Southern Vermont is continuing to seek support through public contracts, private grants and its annual spring Walk for Life. (The latter event’s top fundraiser, 83-year-old great-grandmother Shirley Squires, has collected $235,000 since AIDS took the life of her son, Democratic Guilford Rep. Ronald Squires, in 1993.)

    “We’re going back to where we were in the beginning — grass-roots education,” Peterson concludes. “Part of our message is, yes, it’s still here. There are people still suffering.”


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