BRATTLEBORO—For people involved with the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont for the past 25 years, grief is a familiar emotion.
This year, the sense of loss is more acute as the AIDS Project is mourning the deaths of two longtime volunteers.
The AIDS Project had already dedicated this year’s annual Walk for Life on May 19 to the memory of Robert Torrey, who died in December. But, as the final preparations for the 25th annual event were nearly complete, news arrived of the death of Peggy Longueil on April 30.
Both Torrey and Longueil had served on the AIDS Project’s board of directors.
According to Sarah Benton, a close friend of Torrey, he was one of the founders of the AIDS Project.
“He participated in and co-chaired many of the Walks in the early days of the Project and also served on the board,” she said. ”The AIDS Project was one of Bob’s commitments year after year, not only financially, but with time and talent.”
“He was one of our earliest supporters,” said AIDS Project executive director Susan Bell.
Benton set up an online fundraising page with a goal of raising $1,000 in Torrey’s memory and will speak at the May 19 event.
Longueil, who died of brain cancer at the age of 69, got involved with the AIDS Project after she lost her 28-year-old daughter, Michelle, to the disease in 1995.
“Peggy’s death is very sad for us,” said Bell. “She was always there each year for the Walk.”
Every year for 25 years, the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont has held a Walk for Life to honor the community’s efforts to support those living with HIV/AIDS, and reduce the risk of HIV transmission.
This year’s Walk for Life will start at 10 a.m. Walkers will gather at the River Garden on Main Street for a brief period of remembrance, then walk to the Brattleboro Food Co-op, up to the Common and back to the River Garden for a program of music, prizes, and a light lunch.
Teams from businesses, neighborhoods, clubs, churches, and schools form each year to help raise money for the AIDS Project. This year’s teams include Brown Computer Solutions’ Bratt Pack, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, The Men’s Program, Bob’s Girls, Marlboro Walk for Life, the Boys and Girls Club, and Green River Village People.
“The AIDS Project is an excellent cause and we are very proud to support it,” said Patrick Brown, owner of Brown Computer Solutions.
Perceptions have changed about AIDS and HIV in the last 25 years, so that it’s no longer viewed as a death sentence but as a manageable chronic disease. However, this has created a false sense of security, particularly among young people, Bell said.
“The younger folks, particularly gay and bisexual men, are still being exposed,” she said. “That generation hasn’t experienced the loss like we did. If people take [the disease] for granted, they won’t be making healthy choices.”
The AIDS Project’s Men’s Program and Women’s Program encourage healthy choices and promotes safe sex. Both programs have been held up as models on the national stage. Despite success, this year the AIDS Project learned that funding for programs was going to be cut.
Bell said the federal government has shifted its focus to urban areas with the largest number of at-risk individuals. That has meant that programs in rural areas such as Vermont will receive less funding in the future.
While the number of people living with AIDS in Vermont — about 600 — is small compared to other states, there are still new cases diagnosed every year, and Bell said that about 90 percent of the people that the AIDS Project serves live below the poverty line.
“People don’t have a sense that AIDS is still an awful disease,” said Bell. “It’s still a really difficult disease to live with. The medicines are expensive and [have] side effects and you have to really keep on top of everything, which can be hard to do. That’s why we’re still here to help.”