When a local AIDS service organization shuts down, most clients simply look to other groups to meet their support needs. Not Cheryl Wheeler, a 51-year-old HIVer from Newburgh, N.Y. After the Greater Hudson Valley Family Health Center's AIDS outreach branch shut down in late 2005 because of funding cuts, Wheeler took matters into her own hands. She began a fund-raising campaign so that she and other area AIDS advocates could retool and reopen the center.
'We still have places to go for health care, but those are government-run agencies,' says Wheeler, a former health care worker infected through a needle-stick injury 16 years ago. 'There are a lot of people here who are looking for a safe place they can go to just talk and be with their peers, and we want to provide that.'
Wheeler and other local HIVers are hoping to raise $3.5 million this year for the center, which they've renamed Love Is a Friend. A key component would be its Jump Start program, which would provide HIV-positive people and their families with housing and emergency financial assistance as well as a food pantry. Wheeler says she'd also like the agency to conduct HIV prevention outreach, help pay for local HIVers to attend major AIDS conferences, and simply serve as safe gathering space.
To date, Wheeler has faced mostly frustration in her fund-raising quest. She's contacted state and federal lawmakers and regularly writes to prominent philanthropists and charitable organizations; none have yet responded.
'But I'm not giving up,' she says. 'I check my mailbox every day, and I'm hopeful I'm going to hear some good news. Many people have said that what I'm doing is very bold, but I'm just not going to let this disease and this fight take me down. I'm hoping to teach others that they don't have to either.'