BRATTLEBORO -- Shirley Squires is close to reaching the quarter of a million dollar benchmark in her fundraising efforts that began shortly after her son died.
"Shirley is an amazing dynamo of a woman in the community," said Karen Peterson, executive director of AIDS Project of Southern Vermont. "She reaches out to over 700 people in her letter and receives donations anywhere from $5 to $250, all to benefit the AIDS Project."
Her son, Ron Squires, served as a state congressman from Guilford and Vernon from 1991 until he died of AIDS-related illness shortly after being sworn in to a second legislative term in 1993. He was Vermont's first openly gay legislator.
Ron fought to end gay-related discrimination in the state. In 1992, Vermont became the fourth state to pass legislation banning discrimination against gay men and lesbians.
"The early ‘90s was a tough time for people living with HIV and AIDS. It was really a death sentence," said Peterson. "Really, you were diagnosed and you didn't live much longer."
She told the Reformer that new drugs have become available for patients since then and things have turned around for the better.
For over 21 years, Squires has donated $233,595 in total to the AIDS Project in memory of Ron. Since his death, she became an advocate for the organization as well as its single largest donor.
"It's because she reaches out," said Peterson. "In the early days, she would visit and call everyone. Now, she does a mailing and we help her with that."
Squires is excited to reach her goal this year. The quarter million dollar benchmark has a certain ring to it.
"It just sounds like really a lot of money," she said. "And it is a lot."
When first setting out, Squires did not anticipate being able to raise so much money for the organization. She started by raising approximately $1,000 her first year, back in 1993. Each year, she has set out to raise more than the previous year.
"I'm always excited. You would think the checks coming in the mail were for me because I get so excited when I open one," said Squires.
Letters sent out to potential donors on behalf of the Squires ask for the money in order to celebrate the spirit of service exemplified by Ron and Shirley. Sometimes, a person may not be able to send a donation but they ask not to be removed from the list of letter recipients because they would like to be asked again the following year.
Squires was appreciative of all the assistance throughout the years.
"Without them giving, I could not begin to do what I do," she added. "Without them, I would not be able to raise the money that I am able to raise."
The AIDS Project of Southern Vermont provides direct services to people living with HIV/AIDS and prevention services in Windham, Bennington and southern Windsor counties. The organization was founded in 1988.
This year, the 27th Annual Walk for Life on May 17 will honor Squires. She typically brings in about $19,000 to $20,000 for the AIDS Project each year.
The Walk for Life will be held from 10 a.m. to noon. Walkers will meet at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, where a brief period of remembrance will be followed by a symbolic walk on Main Street, which is approximately a mile long. Community members are urged to say the names of people they lost into a microphone and balloons are let go before the walk.
There will be speeches about Squires' work with the organization as well as a performance from local musician Andy Davis. A light lunch and prizes will be available.
"We encourage people to attend and raise funds," said Peterson. "It's our single largest fundraiser. For us, it's a time to remember friends who have died from AIDS-related illness and honor everyone who makes a difference in the work."
The event usually draws 75 to 100 people. Organizers hope the weather will be good for the walk. There was one year where it snowed on the day of the event.
For more information, visit aidsprojectsouthernvermont.org or call Peterson at 802-254-4444.
To donate, a check can be made out to the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont and sent to Shirley Squires, 1890 Guilford Center Road, Guilford, VT, 05301.
Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.