Memorial AIDS Quilt Shows Hope

Murray, KY – Murray State University applied two years ago to host the NAMES Project Memorial AIDS Quilt for the first time in a decade, which was displayed on campus this week in observance of World Aids Day. Chris Taylor finds out why the Quilt is a symbol of hope and an important tool in both prevention and awareness.

For many guests attending the opening ceremony of the quilt display in MSU's Curris Center Ballroom, it was their first experience. Several said they didn't know what to expect, but stood in awe at the sheer size of the display. The quilts stand massive. Each 8-panel canvas covers 144 square-feet and line the walls in multitudes of color, text, and imagery. 641 names of the lost represented on the displayed quilts were read aloud as volunteers carefully unwrapped the wide swaths, stretching them across the floor. Most were male; many female. Some were abbreviated, some nicknames, some had titles. There was a reverend, a doctor, a baby. They rang together in poetic solace. For some, the quilts' imagery is almost overwhelming. Viewing the display was a first for MSU senior Rhea Flanery. Her initial reaction was...

Flanery- Heartbreak. It's really kind of a kick in the gut.

Flanery says she didn't expect to feel emotional.

Flanery- It's just horrible to see how many people have lost their lives to this and this only like a drop in the bucket, but I think it makes it very tangible, really real and it's the reaction of the friends and family to the loss of these people.

Curris Center Assistant Director Shari Wilkins says to her AIDS was just a word prior to experiencing the quilt.

Wilkins- It just struck home that it doesn't respect who you are, what age you are, what your sexual preference is. It hits children. It hits adults; and every time it affects somebody it affects not only the victim but the entire family community.

Wilkins says this is the third time the school has hosted the event since the nineties, but the first time she is seeing evident hope among the quilts.

Wilkins- Panels are beginning to slow coming in and that is due to the fact that not so many people are dying. Yes, they're still living with AIDS; they're still living with HIV, but they're living.

Paducah-based HIV and AIDS caregiver Heartland Cares is one organization benefiting from donations generated by the display. The non-profit provides client-centered healthcare and support services. It has 350 active clients in the area. Executive Director Krista Wood says over the last decade Heartland has lost nearly 100 clients to the disease.

Wood- We probably have five to ten deaths a year, and that's just very hard.

Advances in modern medicine now prolong the lives of many afflicted by slowing down the disease. However, according to Wood, many of her clients come into Heartland's care literally on their deathbeds.

Woods- I think it's the same across the nation, but in rural areas especially in our area, it's not HIV that kills anymore, it's discrimination.

Wood says the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS hurts prevention efforts and discourages people from getting tested. She hopes the quilt display will help raise awareness and cut down on bias in the area. That hope is shared by Dr. Patrick Evans, a Yale University Associate Professor who attended the MSU display.

Evans- When people come to see the quilt and see you know a teddy bear that a grandmother has sewn onto it, it tells you about a real human life and it tells you in ways that statistics can't.

Evans is grateful that times are better, but warns

Evans- AIDS is still prevalent. HIV infection rates are going up among young people and in communities of color and still in the gay community in this country. And the devastation around the world is mind boggling.

While many see the quilt as a symbol of hope, Rhea Flanery sees it as a reminder.

Flanery- I guess I don't see this necessarily as a hopeful thing, but just kind of a memorial to remind us of what's happened, to not let it happen again, to make sure that we are safe and do what we need to do not end up like this.

Shari Wilkins expects the donations generated by the display to be a meager amount, but says any donation to this cause is a welcome one.