Vt. CARES: Raising awareness about HIV/AIDs

BURLINGTON When Peter Jacobsen was 16 years old, he discovered his professional passion. Thats when the Winooski resident decided to reach out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS. I wanted to do this since I was 16, said Jacobsen, now 30. I knew I wanted to help my community deal with HIV. Jacobsen is executive director of Vermont CARES, a Burlington-based social service agency that helps people who are HIV Positive and those diagnosed with AIDS. The agency, which occupies a comfortable suite of offices on St. Paul Street, started to reach out to clients 21 years ago. Because AIDS was increasingly in the public forefront, a group of volunteers came together to launch the organization, Jacobsen said. Dec. 1 marks World AIDS Day, a time set aside to remember people who have been diagnosed with HIV and AIDS and also to honor those lost to the disease. Vermont CARES will spend part of that day initiating a broad-based educational program, whose goal is to bust myths and misconceptions associated with HIV, Jacobsen said. Held at the Firehouse Gallery on Burlingtons Church Street, the event kicks off at 6 p.m. and will include music, guest speakers and refreshments. Calling the night a family-friendly event, it is free and open to the public. This will be an on-going, statewide program, said Jacobsen. Were going to start in rural areas, and with young people. In addition to Burlington, Vermont CARES has offices in other areas of the state, including Rutland and Montpelier and St. Johnsbury. The agency is overseen by a 13-member board of directors, to which Jacobsen reports. In turn, Jacobsen works with 12 staff people at the Burlington site, he said. The agencys annual budget runs around $750,000, with one-third of that amount coming fro donors, Jacobsen. While the economic downturn is impacting all sections of the market, Jacobsen said the pace of donations has remained constant. He also pointed out that Vermont CARES helps clients with housing and heating costs. Discrimination against those with HIV and AIDS who are seeking housing exists, but remains difficult to prosecute, Jacobsen added. The agency also provides free and anonymous HIV testing, education about the disease and prevention, he added. Weekly, 140 people are served by Vermont CARES, and 5,000 people are touched by the agency's programs and services throughout the year. While treatment for the disease has improved the quality of life for those infected, the face of AIDS is also changing. According to Jacobsen, 40 percent of those tested at Vermont CARES are women, while 30 percent of those with HIV are female, he said. Additionally, people with HIV are younger. Eight of the agency's recent clients are under 30, while last year, two teenagers sought services from Vermont CARES. HIV is 100 percent preventable. Burlington has been an amazing place for those with HIV, Jacobsen said. It, and the state, has a great system of resources. Jacobsen said the regime of medicine, which can include severe side effects, costs about $50,000 annually, which can be covered by insurance if the cleint has health coverage. He also noted that if patients can tolerate the medication and their immune systems remain strong, they can starve off the AIDS disease indefinitely. It comes down to the choices people make, Jacobsen said. People know how to prevent HIV. For more information on Vermont CARES visit the agency's website, www.vtcares.org. The agency can also be reached by calling toll free, 1-800-649-AIDS.

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