HCN News & Notes

AIDS Foundation of Western Mass. Announces Closing, Vigil

CHICOPEE — After almost 25 years of service to the community, The AIDS Foundation of Western Massachusetts Inc. (AFWM) will be closing its doors.

Originally founded by local activist Donald O’Dell, AFWM was founded to provide emergency financial assistance to people who, like him, were living with HIV/AIDS, a disease that was not considered a disability at the time, though it was debilitating and caused often impossible financial hardship. Over time, AFWM grew to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars of assistance to cover medical expenses, prevent homelessness, purchase appliances and mattresses, keep light and heat on and more.

It also supported camperships for children who were infected or affected by the disease; the AIDS kNOw More Project — a group of inspirational young peer educators; the Living Positive men’s support group; a Women & Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Conference; free educational programming;  and referral services. It was also a safe space for people living with HIV/AIDS to find compassionate support. AFWM was primarily volunteer run and collaborated constantly with local hospitals, medical offices, AIDS Service Organizations and community organizations. More than anything, The foundation provided hope for people who had nowhere else to turn.

“There is still a tremendous need for our services,” said Jessica Roncarati-Howe, AFWM’s first executive director and current board president. “In a time where so many need a safe space, non-judgmental ear and financial help, it’s tragic that The foundation must close. But we are grateful for those organizations that we’ve worked so closely with over the years. We have been in close contact with local AIDS service organizations to ensure that those who rely on us will still have somewhere to turn. AFWM has been a beacon of hope, and we are confident that our dedicated colleagues will keep the light shining.”

AFWM will host its final gathering and candlelight vigil on Sept. 8 at 6 p.m. The event will be held at South Congregational Church in Springfield, the home of many past World AIDS Day gatherings. The event is free and open to the public. All are welcome. It will celebrate the vision of Donald O’Dell and the passion of those who ensured that his work in support of people living with HIV/AIDS lived on. The gathering is intended to bring closure to those who worked for and loved the organization, and introduce those who have relied on its services to local AIDS service organizations that are still available to help.

The foundation will also be announcing the recipient of its remaining funds and of its final O’Dell award. Light appetizers will be provided by Log Rolling Catering and friends from Exit 7 Players’ cast of RENT will sing throughout. An open mic will allow the sharing of stories, readings, songs and poems appropriate to the event. A final candlelight vigil will be led by former trustee and Living Positive founder Mark Zatyrka. The first 100 people will receive a commemorative candle.

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