Volunteer turns concern for AIDS patients into action

A single magazine article describing the alienation and despair of AIDS patients haunted Joyce Wearstler so badly she knew she had to do something, maybe volunteer a few hours a week.

Four years later, she spends almost as much time organizing support groups and other services for people who have tested positive for the AIDS virus as she does at her full-time job as a bank executive.


"The whole prejudice of AIDS just horrified me," said Ms. Wearstler in an interview at a cluttered desk in her office at Second National Service Corporation. "Everyone was abandoning [AIDS patients], even their families. I thought it was just horrible."

Ms. Wearstler, who describes herself as "a 40-something banking type, " had moved from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Annapolis to escape the harsh winters and find a place on the water. She seemed an unlikely candidate to become one of the county's biggest advocates for AIDS patients.


But sometimes life takes strange turns.

After she read the 1988 article, which detailed life on the Johns Hopkins AIDS ward, Ms. Wearstler wanted to volunteer in a program in Anne Arundel County. But she couldn't find one.

In Baltimore, she became a buddy to Jeff, an AIDS patient, through a program sponsored by HERO, a service organization for AIDS patients in the city.

In the year before Jeff died, Ms. Wearstler became an integral part of his life and family, which included a live-in companion and several supportive relatives.

She considered Jeff lucky and his situation unusual because he had a fairly extensive support system. Many patients dying from AIDS have no one, she said.

After his death, she turned her focus on Anne Arundel County, determined to create a support system.

"There was just nothing in Anne Arundel County," said Janet Athey, an AIDS buddy here. "Joyce is just a godsend for this

county. She is the most selfless person I have ever met.


"For Joyce, the cause always comes first."

The first step in Ms. Wearstler's crusade was to hitch up with Suzanne Ochs, then the AIDS case manager at the county health department. Together, they formed Common Threads, the county's first support group for people testing HIV positive.

Ms. Wearstler joked about being overly optimistic about attendance during the group's infancy.

"At our first meeting, we had three group leaders and four participants," she said. "I guess it was a case of too many chiefs and too few Indians."

Since then, however, attendance has grown to about 25 people at meetings held every other week.

Through the meetings, she learned that different kinds of AIDS patients had different problems to deal with -- gay men, for example, had specific concerns and parents with AIDS had others. She and her colleagues began to add groups to meet the needs of each of those populations.


Now, she is planning to start a group for former intravenous drug users who have tested HIV positive as soon as she finds time to train another group leader.

Since Ms. Wearstler first became involved, her role has become increasingly diverse as she continues to learn about the needs of AIDS patients.

In February 1991, Ms. Wearstler and Ms. Ochs started their own buddy program with the help of 17 newly recruited volunteers and the sponsorship of the AIDS Coalition of Anne Arundel County, a group of health professionals, social workers and support group leaders.

The program matches AIDS patients with volunteers who provide companionship and support, such as running errands, providing transportation and acting as advocates.

With the support groups and buddy program in place, a small core of dedicated volunteers led by Ms. Wearstler began initiating other programs, such as the VAT (Volunteer Abbreviated Training) Team, a group of about 30 specially trained volunteers who can help AIDS patients who are in crisis or who have special, short-term needs.

To coordinate the myriad programs developing, the group formed the HIV/AIDS Volunteer Enrichment Network, or HAVEN, in April 1991. Ms. Wearstler was appointed executive director.


Three weeks ago, the organization was incorporated and Ms. Wearstler is now seeking tax-exempt status. Demand for HAVEN's services is growing so fast that Ms. Wearstler feels she and the other volunteers can no longer keep up.

Once the tax-exempt status is approved, she will seek a grant to cover the salary of at least one administrative assistant to handle much of the paperwork and scheduling.

Despite her frustration, Ms. Wearstler's fledgling organization has made tremendous strides in just 18 months. More than 200 HAVEN volunteers have helped dozens of patients who used to travel to Baltimore or Washington for help because they could find no support here.

"HAVEN has really done a good job of bringing HIV into the light, and that's really positive," said Ms. Ochs, who continues to be active with the group. "The services were really needed. People are really flocking to use them.

"The buddy program in particular has filled the biggest gap," she added. "These people really need advocacy -- and love. The buddies give them unconditional love."

Anyone interested in volunteering or needing services, should call HAVEN at 269-8064 or contact the Health Department at 222-7109.