When Frannie Peabody’s grandson Peter Vom Lehn, died of AIDS in 1984, she didn’t pretend something else caused his death. She didn’t hide her head in shame or criticize, reject, or condemn him in any way. It happened to other people. I know because I told some of their stories.
I remember the father who wrote to me after seeing a series of reports I did on the AIDS epidemic. He told me that his son, who was HIV-positive, was no longer welcome in his home.
I attended the funeral of a mother who constantly had to fight against discrimination and fear. When her young daughter started first grade in a new community she addressed an auditorium full of parents and the media. To assure them that her little girl, who also had AIDS, would not pose a threat.
I interviewed a woman who was determined to close the doors on a nearby apartment house that was home to several men with HIV/AIDS. She was afraid. She later met with the men and became one of their staunchest supporters.
Frannie Peabody didn’t turn her back on her grandson. Or anybody else who was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Instead, she stretched out her hand and her heart and joined an AIDS support group at First Parish Unitarian Church in Portland. An 80-year old grandmother in a roomful of gay men.
She helped establish the first AIDS Hotline in Maine and in 1985, the AIDS project. It became Maine’s largest AIDS service organization. In 1995 she co-founded Peabody House — still the first and only assisted living facility in Maine for people in the advanced stages of HIV.
Frannie died in 2001 at the age of 98. She dedicated the final 18 years of her life trying to make a difference for people affected by HIV/AIDS.
This remarkable woman’s legacy continues to live on. The year after her death, the AIDS project and Peabody House merged to become Frannie Peabody Center.
When I reminded some people that December 1st is World AIDS Day and said that I was planning to write a blog post, a few said, “Isn’t AIDS all but gone in this country?”
It may not be the epidemic it once was here, but people are still being diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. Maine sees about 60 new cases every year. Some of the people who were diagnosed in the 80s are still alive today thanks to an array of medications. You can read about some Maine people living with HIV/AIDS in another blog post I wrote — SeeingME: Profiles of Resilience.
“Fulfilling that mission has looked different over the years,” Katie Rutherford, the Center’s development director told me. “We’ve been able to adapt to our clients’ needs and be creative and strategic in the way that we are able to deliver our services, whether changing from a hospice care facility to federal housing grants. We consider ourselves a client-centered organization and that’s really paramount to the way that our programs are designed and the work we do every day. It’s very much rooted in compassionate care which is really something that we value very strongly primarily because of Frannie Peabody herself. She laid the groundwork for what we do.”
Frannie Peabody Center provides
- assistance in the form of mortgage, rent, and utility payments for people living with HIV/AIDS
- case management for 400 people living with HIV/AIDS statewide
- mental health and substance abuse counseling
- free and low-barrier HIV and/or Hepatitis screening.
The Center also continues to try and break down barriers and fight against stigma. Yes, three decades later, people with HIV and AIDS must still endure stigma.
“There is tremendous stigma,” said executive director Donna Galluzzo, “and especially against high-risk groups of people who are at risk for HIV. They are certainly still among the most stigmatized people in society. That is a huge piece that we continue to fight every day.”
How you can help
Frannie Peabody Center is a non-profit organization that relies on funding from various sources to provide its services. It also relies on volunteers. If you’re interested in helping out with any of its annual events, contact them through the website.
World AIDS Day events
You’re also invited to attend the World AIDS Day events the Center is sponsoring in Portland. They not only help draw attention to the issue they’re an opportunity, said Katie, “to remember the people we have lost and to show support moving forward.”
Candlelight Vigil in Congress Square Park at 5:15 followed by a screening of the film Uncle Howard at the Portland Museum of Art.
One more thing
Because every Thursday I share a recipe on Catching Health, here is a recipe for a hearty slow-cooked beef stew from one of Frannie Peabody Center’s clients. As it would be for anyone with a chronic illness or a compromised immune system, nutritious meals are essential for people living with HIV and AIDS.