Beth and Russ Milham have been helping spread awareness of the AIDS and HIV crisis for 27 years through their organization AIDS Quilt RI. They host workshops and make quilts for people that have lost their lives to this disease. Read about their involvement, the meaning behind the blue candles, and “quilt magic”.
Newport Out: Could you give me an explanation of the AIDS Quilt RI project and how it relates to larger the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt?
Beth: We still support the mission of the quilt of the NAMES project and we still send the
quilts we make there, but we function as an independent non-profit for all other purposes
Part of the mission of the NAMES Project, which we share, is to remember to all the people that have been lost to AIDS. The word “NAMES” in the title is spelled in capitals to emphasize that everyone is an individual not as another statistic. We are also here to comfort those who have lost people to AIDS, because that’s a very special form a grief, usually someone who died too young and of a stigmatized illness. That complicates the grieving process a great deal. Creating a panel for a loved one, or having one made by our workshop participants, helps with the healing.
The third reason is to put a face on AIDS and to give promote awareness and education. That’s what we do in our workshops especially with younger people who don’t know or realize they know somebody who is HIV positive, to show them that HIV is still here and still an issue can kill. We help them understand that what their choices are will make a difference in their lives and in their loved ones’ lives, as well as the lives of people in the state and around the world.
Newport Out: How many panels have you made for the AIDS Quilt Project?
Beth: We’ve made hundreds. We’ve made about 50 panels for the Agape Center alone Even before the chapter started people in Rhode Island were making panels starting in the mid to late 80’s.
Newport Out: Do you do anything for World AIDS day?
Beth: We’ve held two public events a year, around World AIDS Day and in May, for the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial. Sometimes we join forces with other groups to do those events. We also provide panels for other groups’ events.
Newport Out: Do you do a lot of workshops around this?
Beth: We do workshops whenever we are requested to. Some groups do workshops annually. For example, Salve Regina has done annual workshops since the early 90s, most often with the Social Work Club, joined in recent years by The Alliance (the LGBTA group on campus,) and this year, by the Women’s Gender Studies Program.
Newport Out: Could you explain the Blue Candle and how it originated?
Beth: The Blue Candle is a symbol that was brought to the NAMES Project around the mid 90’s. A delegate to a NAMES conference brought the story of the blue candle that was used as a symbol for seeking a cure for polio. The Mothers’ March Against Polio encouraged people to burn a blue candle in the window as a reminder that we need needed to find a cure for it. Then, when the vaccine was discovered and polio was basically eradicated, somebody thought of using it for the cure for AIDS and HIV. So a blue candle was burned at all NAMES Project functions. We’ve continued to do so at our two all our public events.
Newport Out: How did you become involved in AIDS Memorial Quilt work
Beth: In 1991, there was a charter committee forming in Providence. Most of the
volunteers were from the VA hospital because they had an AIDS treatment program and they had already lost over more than 40 patients. The committee was doing a display at Middletown High School because one of their volunteers was a teacher there. and at At the same time I was one of the first RNs to work for CODAC when they started the methadone maintenance program in Newport. They needed somebody that would be a liaison for AIDS service in the community because, being a drug treatment center, we did have people who were HIV positive. So I decided to try to pull together a health fair to highlight services of for people living with AIDS in our area. Since both events were scheduled for the same day, we decided to combine them into one event .I got to know the people from the chapter and they invited me to become part of the chapter committee. So that began my involvement and over the years, people have kind of moved on from the committee and then Russ became involved a few years later and we’ve kept it going.
Russ: I became involved in 1996, when The NAMES Project was fielding a display on the National Mall in Washington. I was a logistics person in charge of a block-long section of the quilt display. Every display has monitors looking out for people who might break down. People could get really overwhelmed.Volunteers were also supposed to be watching out for each other. But, as a logistics person I would find people they might overlook, and I would pull them aside and say, “take a break”. We also once helped a family come to terms with denial about a loved one whose panel was in the quilt. When they saw their son’s panel at first they wanted to take it out of the display.
Beth: They wanted it the panel totally removed from the quilt. They had never acknowledged their son, first of all, was gay or was HIV positive. When this man died, his buddy made a quilt for him and he lived in terror that when it was on display, the family would find it (“Buddies” are volunteers assigned to help them people living with AIDS with everyday tasks and to just be there for them.) When that day finally came, they had a long talk with the buddy that made it.
Russ: At first they were really nasty. By the time they left, they were really pleased and let us know that they changed their minds. Things like that make doing this worth it. There are lots of other examples like that.
Beth: Quilt magic is just things that happen around the quilt, like a special energy that makes things happen. It’s not easy to find any other explanation. One of my favorite stories is about a display I was doing for a citizens advisory group that served mostly women. I wanted to bring sections of the quilt that had panels for women on them but I had loaned those sections to a group in Connecticut, but they hadn’t returned them in time. So I brought the only one that had a panel for a woman on it. I didn’t realize that a panel for another person in that section turned out to be for a social worker who had been a counselor for that group. They just spent the whole time staring at this quilt and I hadn’t even known that he had any relation to relationship with them. I wouldn’t have brought that section if I loaned the other to the group in Connecticut!
If you want to host a workshop visit their website at http://www.aidsquiltri.org.
Special thanks to Newport Out intern Nathan Taft for doing the interviewing and production to make this blog post possible.