AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod

By Sean Corcoran

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

The state Department of Public Health estimates there are about 500 people living with HIV or AIDS on Cape Cod. The vast majority of them rely on an organization called the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod for everything from food, to housing, to transportation to and from medical appointments.

47-year-old James Perry moved from Falmouth to Provincetown seven years ago because he's HIV positive.

James Perry: "It's always been known to be a gay town. And it's a lot more comfortable for people to come here to sit and talk about it. So, I think if you come down with HIV and you're maybe in Falmouth, like I was, it's a lot easier to access and be around people that are positive than to seek out and find someone in Falmouth that is positive."

James Perry: "Now, a lot of things have changed. There is a lot more openness in the Upper Cape that wasn't there before."

Within a year of his arrival in Provincetown, Perry found himself taking advantage of the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod. When money got tight, the group helped him afford his prescription drugs. It also assisted him in finding an apartment. Perry says this is where he knows he can go for the very basics of life - food, clothing, shelter and medical care.

James Perry: "It's very helpful in connecting you with the rightgroups with the right funding for the programs you want access to. If you need food for food stamps, if you need funding for medical, if you need groups for therapy, for talking about how you feel being positive with HIV."

In the early 1980s, before most Americans had ever heard the acronyms A.I.D.S. or HIV, a group of Provincetown residents banded together to create an support structure that would become known as The AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod. As the epidemic grew, Provincetown emerged as a haven for people suffering from AIDS-related illnesses. Executive director Laura Thornton says the burden quickly fell to the AIDS Support Group to make certain these new residents were cared for.

Laura Thornton "As everybody aware, the first population to be affected by HIV was the gay population. So that when the epidemic hit, a lot of people came here for support and for care because it was a safe environment and there wasn 't that level of discrimination happening here."

The AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod has offices in the heart of Provincetown on Bradford Street in the historic Odd Fellows Meeting Hall. It is the go-to organization for people with HIV and AIDS both in Provincetown and across the Cape. The group also has a mission of working in the community to provide health education and disease prevention. Its workers go into the schools to talk about how HIV and other diseases are transmitted. It runs a needle exchange program, and volunteers work on the streets, too, talking to drug users who are at risk of either spreading or contracting all sorts of diseases. It 's important work, but unfortunately, Thornton says, too many people think the epidemic is over.

Laura Thornton "Here in the Provincetown office, we lost four clients in the last two months, and that continues to shatter you. You never get used to that. So while the general community thinks that 's not happening anymore, we 're experiencing it. We 're on the front lines of that. And I know that does have an incredible impact on our staff. "

Sixty-four-year-old Walt Skank of Wellfleet volunteers for the group, so he 's seen both the good it does, as well as experienced the profound loss that is felt when a client dies.

Walt Skank: "It's a matter of being present and listening to people and responding appropriately and supportively. These losses that come from time to time - on a fairly regular basis are deep ones. Both for staff - that is where I see it a lot, as well as for clients that are here. These are deeply held friends."

In her new role as executive director, Laura Thornton wishes she could do more. With clients spread out across the Cape, she would like to have more offices where they can meet with caseworkers. There also is a need for more housing, particularly in the Hyannis area where there is an HIV-positive homeless population. And she wishes she could enhance the organization's nutrition program so more sick people could have access to healthy meals. But all of that, she says, would require more donations and more community support.

Broadcast September 1, 2005

Sean Corcoran reports for the Cape and Islands NPR stations.

The AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod
Provincetown Office
P.O. Box 1522
96-98 Bradford Street
Provincetown, MA 02657
Tollfree: 800-905-1170
Tel: 508-487-9445
Fax: 508-487-0565

Hyannis Office
Tollfree: 866-990-2437
Tel: 508-778-1954
Fax: 508-778-4501


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