Walking to remember

Friday May 17, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- This is the 26th year the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont has led a walk through Brattleboro to raise money and remember those who have died from HIV-related illnesses.

For 23 of those years AIDS Project of Southern Vermont Executive Director Susan Bell has taken part in the walk as the organization's leader. Next year Bell will most likely walk again, but it will be in different shoes.

After more than two decades as executive director, Bell has announced that she will be leaving the organization. Bell said she is ready for new challenges and does not yet know where she might be heading next, though she said it was time for her to move on.

On Saturday at 10 a.m. supporters will meet at the American Legion at 32 Linden Street in Brattleboro to read the names of the people who have died from HIV-related illnesses. Then the group will walk through town to raise awareness about the disease and honor those who work to make life easier for those who are living with the disease.

The AIDS Project of Southern Vermont was started by a small group of volunteers in 1988 when the disease was misunderstood, and most people saw it as an urban problem. The volunteers began offering direct support to people living with HIV in southern Vermont.

Bell and three other employees were hired in 1990.

The group held meetings around town and tried to educate Vermonters about the epidemic. They started a buddy program that helps support people who have HIV/AIDS. That program is still going on today.

"It was a grassroots organization," said Bell. "They were doing this work on their own, with very little support."

The group worked with a budget of about $12,000 in the early years, and over time there were more resources on the state and federal levels. Care for those with HIV/AIDS also changed as medicines became more successful and available.

Bell said the group in Vermont was unique, as it was caring for a rural population at a time when the epidemic was mostly in urban centers.

"There was no model for what they were doing," Bell said. "The work they were doing in Brattleboro was very farsighted. It took a lot of bravery."

As the organization grew it developed bylaws, elected a board, and formalized the staff's role and responsibilities.

More groups were started around New England and Bell met with them as they started working in their communities.

"No one had training. We were all learning," she said.

Now she said she is ready to move on. Bell will be with the organization until Sept. 30.

Operations Manager Karen Peterson is going to take over as director.

"Twenty-three years is a long time to be thinking about nothing else," said Bell. "I am going to see what doors open. It has been a great job, a joy really, to do this for so long."

For more information on Saturday's walk go to www.aidsprojectsouthernvermont.org.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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