Gifts to Share is offering compassion, comfort and a caring presence to AIDS patients in Carroll County.
But first, the AIDS ministry, based at St. Joseph Catholic Community in Eldersburg, has to find those patients.
Organizers have sent fliers to area churches, service organizations and doctors. HERO, a resource agency for HIV and AIDS patients, is highlighting the program in its March newsletter.
"Even if we only help one person, it will be worth the effort," said Nancy A. Birck, who founded the first AIDS ministry in the county at St. Joseph several years ago.
This week, the group received a call from their first and, so far, only patient. This weekend, they planned to make the first in what they hope will be a long series of visits.
They will deliver a basket of toiletries, lotions, fresh baked goods, nutritious snacks, games and puzzles. The recipient will find a personal note in the basket from one of the visitors.
"The basket is a symbol for us, an entry," said Ms. Birck. "The main thing for us is to go in and see what kind of help we can be, even if it is only listeners to people in crisis."
Ms. Birck is a member of the archdiocesan AIDS Ministry and AIDS Interfaith. She took buddy training with HERO and has worked as a buddy to several AIDS patients.
Much of her efforts have been with the Howard County AIDS Alliance, which she said has been successful in finding local patients. In Carroll, many patients travel outside the county for treatment and live in fear that their neighbors will discover they have the virus, she said.
"HERO has told me they are glad something is finally happening in Carroll County," she said. "There will always be some we are not going to reach, no matter what, but at least now I see something happening, a glimmer of hope."
Several others have joined her in Gifts to Share. They include a nurse, a dentist and two Manchester women, Barbara Matthews and Susan Edwards, who will help Ms. Birck with the visits.
"It all has to do with our faith journey," said Ms. Matthews. "Support and help for AIDS is lacking in Carroll County. People living with AIDS should have support from their own community."
Ms. Birck and Ms. Matthews met at a care-givers seminar sponsored by Carroll Hospice. Ms. Birck called the meeting "providence. I grabbed her and we just clicked."
Ms. Matthews and Ms. Edwards work in outreach ministry with Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Manchester.
"We are not just a group of do-gooders," said Ms. Matthews. "We know there is a need that hasn't been met. We feel a call to do it."
They have trained as AIDS care-givers and have no fear of working with the patients.
"As long as we use common sense and universal precautions, there is no reason to fear," said Ms. Birck.
The women have received donations to fill many baskets. Delivery can take place within 24 hours of a phone call. As distributions increase, the group will solicit items from area businesses.
The St. Joseph community has been "extremely supportive from day one," said Ms. Birck. "St. Joseph's carries a lot of weight in the Eldersburg community. Using their letterhead gives us more credibility."
If their efforts take off, there will be more visits. Ms. Birck can draw from a list of volunteers if she gets busy. For now, she knows from experience that requests will only trickle in.
"All we are asking is to let us know," she said.
They promise patients complete confidentiality.
"People still don't understand that this epidemic goes way beyond all of us," Ms. Birck said. "There is a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance because of misinformation."
Ms. Matthews said the people she has encountered in AIDS ministry "are the most spiritual people I have ever met."
She hopes their work will dispel the fear that surrounds the disease.