Vermont CARES volunteers, clients, and staff at a recent holiday gathering.
By Andy Smith
Vermont is famous for its spectacular autumn leaves, with weekenders driving for hundreds of miles to enjoy its crisp air, mountains and cozy small towns.
Carnivals, skiing and dog-sledding aside, winter in The Green Mountain State, however, is far less delightful and especially brutal for the disenfranchised.
“With homelessness rates rising, and heating bills increasingly costly, the needs of those we serve are constantly increasing,” says Peter Jacobsen, Executive Director of Burlington-based Vermont CARES (which stands for Committee for AIDS Resources, Education, and Service), which provides housing, financial assistance, transportation, and support services to over 150 people with HIV/AIDS annually.
This winter, which Jacobsen describes as one of the worst in years, Vermont CARES is using the $7,500 grant it received from Broadway Cares in 2008 to support its emergency assistance program for lower-income people living with HIV across northern Vermont. And, yes, many will use the money to pay their heating bills.
“Extreme cold weather has a major impact on the people we serve. I’ve even had clients call and say they’ve had to miss doctor’s appointments because their cars wouldn’t’ start for days in a row,” says Jacobsen, who adds, “In the past fiscal year, we’ve given $14,000 more than we anticipated, but despite the increased need and the current slumping economy, we haven’t had to turn anyone away.”
Great news, but it also means that the amount of assistance people need is even greater than the organization expected. “Poverty markers are outdistancing our ability to anticipate them.”
Volunteers and staff marching in the 2008 Vermont Pride Parade
Two Decades or Prevention/Care
Like many ASOs, Vermont CARES began in the 1980s (1987 in their case) as a grassroots effort comprised of friends concerned about he plague that was killing the people in their lives. “They offered a sort of ‘home-based volunteer services,’” says Jacobsen, who joined the organization five years ago, becoming executive director 18 months later. “Next they began doing prevention and education outreach in schools and colleges.”
Today the organization operates with paid staff of 13 (down from years past) and more than 100 volunteers on a frugal annual budget of $730,000. Originally based in Burlington, Vermont CARES now has four offices across the state, covering over 6000 square miles. Services include state-wide case management, an active needle exchange program, and free HIV-testing.
In 2004, the staff and board of Vermont CARES made an incredibly tough decision: to pass up funding from The Centers for Disease Control. “At that time, CDC funding covered about 80% of our prevention program,” Jacobsen says. “It was a difficult decision, but the CDC was requiring that organizations receiving funding ask a lengthy series of detailed, highly personal and often invasive questions.”
Invasion of privacy was at the center of their decision, and in a small state like Vermont, with lots of rural areas and small towns, residents value confidentiality, says Jacobsen, “especially people with drug addictions or a highly stigmatized diagnosis like AIDS.”
“Under the (2004) CDC guidelines, when someone came in for needle exchange, we were required to ask ‘when was the last time they had unprotected sex, used injection drugs…names, dates, zip codes. Most of the people we serve would have been scared away by those questions.”
Even during outreach efforts in public schools, staff members and volunteers would have been required to ask these questions. “It reached a point where some of the questions were making our staff blush.”
Jacobsen adds that negative feedback from Vermont CARES and other ASOs across the country may have swayed the CDC. “Now, at least, they don’t require that people give their names.”
Without CDC funds as backup, paying for prevention programs though grants and private donations remains a challenge. Fortunately, despite the slumping economy, Vermont CARES had a strong holiday fundraising season.
“Our materials put our volunteers and clients front-and-center,” the executive director emphasizes. “I think that helped donors make a connection, to see the personal side of our efforts.”
“I think they realize that maybe their retirement plans are getting dinged a bit, but that’s nothing compared to people who are homeless, struggling with addiction, or can’t pay their heating bills.”
And for helping Vermont CARES’ clients pay their heating bills (along with other utilities) for a number of years, Jacobsen says his organization is particularly grateful. “Our partnership with Broadway Cares has been a strong one, a longstanding relationship that we really value.”
For more on Vermont CARES, visit its website at http://www.vtcares.org