30th annual Walk for Life reaps record sum

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BRATTLEBORO — Stewart McDermet was leading the 30th annual AIDS Project of Southern Vermont Walk for Life on Saturday when, amid the bounce of sneakers, go-go boots and baby strollers, he stepped back to heavier memories of the inaugural event in 1988.

"There was a lot of trepidation," the Dummerston resident recalls. "We were dealing with people who were dying and others who were afraid."

Much has changed since Brattleboro's first Walk for Life began with organizers telling some 70 participants, according to a press report of the day, "We've made an agreement with the police — if people hurl epithets at us, we won't hurl any back."

Three decades later, the same number of marchers was greeted by friendly honking and high-fives as, circling through downtown, they raised a record $34,121 for the Brattleboro-based nonprofit that's one of three AIDS service organizations in the state.

"There have been many people in the community who have been touched by the virus," AIDS Project case manager Marguerite Monet said. "We are appreciative of new medications, but the fight's not over."

When McDermet and friends kicked off the event in 1988, AIDS was a death sentence receiving scant attention from the administration of then President Ronald Reagan.

"The disease is growing to epidemic proportions," fellow marcher Geoff Burgess told a local reporter at the time, "and there is still not enough consciousness raising going on."

Today, AIDS is treatable. Burgess, for his part, now serves on the board of the AIDS Project, which provides a host of services to 80 clients living with HIV as well as prevention and education programs to curb its spread in Windham, Bennington and southern Windsor counties.

Saturday's walk drew participants ranging from teenagers in the local Boys & Girls Club to the feather-boaed Miss Ginger Soulless to 86-year-old great-great-grandmother Shirley Squires, the latter who solicited hundreds of family members and friends statewide to raise a personal-best $26,333 in memory of her son, the late Rep. Ronald Squires, D-Guilford.

"In thinking back to November 1992 when Ron first let us know he had AIDS, I realize I have learned a tremendous amount about the disease," Squires said Saturday as she read from the same speech she gave at her first walk 25 years ago. "If I can stress anything that I have learned to the families of people who have AIDS, it is to support them and give your love."

Squires helps in other ways, too. She has gone from collecting $1,000 in her first walk in 1993 — just after her son became the first state public figure to lose his life to AIDS — to culling $12,000 on her 10th anniversary, $19,500 on her 20th and hitting collective totals of $250,000 in 2014 and $300,000 last year.

Saturday's event at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden on Main Street included songs from local musicians Samirah Evans and Sharon Leslie as well as marchers from area churches including Guilford Community and St. Michael's Catholic and Episcopal parishes and businesses such as Brown Computer Solutions and West River Family Dental.

Although pleased with the record-setting fundraising, participants aren't planning to sit down.

Said Squires: "I hope a lot more can be done."

Kevin O'Connor is a Brattleboro writer who helps with the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont's food assistance program.

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