John Howard Society of Durham Region
Mission: To reduce the impact of crime and its causes by providing a spectrum of effective prevention and intervention programs.
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Breaking the Silence:

Whitby resident brings AIDS awareness to the forefront

Dec 1, 2006
By Izabela Jaroszynski

DURHAM -- Joanne Ashley's hands glide lovingly over the expanse of the quilt as it lays stretched out on her kitchen counter.

She stops, resting her left hand on a black and white photo of a young woman and a little boy -- fourth row, third square from the right.

"That's me and my brother Bill," Ms. Ashley says.

The retired nurse can still remember when the photo was taken: a cold winter's day during her nursing training when she came home to the small farm that overlooked the Hockley Valley. Her brother, 11 years her junior, brought much joy to her life. Having been raised with three older brothers, she took great pride in the littlest addition to their family.

"He was a very bright, articulate guy," she remembers fondly. "He had beautiful blue eyes and eyelashes most woman would kill for."

She missed him when he moved away to California, but nothing prepared her for his return to Toronto in 1991. Bill, 45, was immediately admitted to Toronto General. Ms. Ashley saw her beloved brother three times during that week he was in hospital. After the third visit she left not knowing what to think. By the time she drove from Toronto to Ajax, he was dead.

The official statement was that he died of cardiac arrest, but Ms. Ashley knew the truth.

"I knew he had AIDS," she says, her eyes brimming with tears. "Of course we knew. We didn't think that he would die that quickly."

With the stigma that surrounded HIV/AIDS in the early 1990s -- and in many ways continues to surround the disease to this day -- the family did not mention the dreaded word when they brought Bill's body home to be buried.

"When you are raised in such a small, tight-knit farming community, it's not something you discuss," she said. "It bothered me a lot that I wasn't being honest about my brother's life and his death but that's just the way it was."

She gave in to the stigma and kept the silence for five years.

Then in 1996, Ms. Ashley was at a Whitby Rotary Club meeting at which the president read out a call for action asking someone to take up the cause of raising AIDS awareness.

"I waited for someone to acknowledge this statement," she said. "Surely someone would step forward."

The silence was deafening. And then, with a hand raised uncertainly and a voice that could barely be heard, Ms. Ashley broke her long silence. "I'll do this," she heard herself say.

"That was a decade ago," she says. "We've come a long way since then. When we started I had five or six people on my committee and I was leading them on a blind trail of faith."

Using her background as a nurse, a social worker and a long-time volunteer, Ms. Ashley set about making small inroads into the enormous task of raising awareness for a disease not many wanted to acknowledge or discuss.

The AIDS Awareness and Education Committee worked with the John Howard Society, the AIDS Committee of Durham and the Positive Care Clinic to assist on a local level.

One of the first big projects of the Whitby Rotary Club's AIDS committee was to create the Travelling Tribute Quilt. For $100, private and corporate donors would receive one square to decorate as a tribute to those living with AIDS or who had succumbed to the disease. With the help of local quilter Annette Janca, the tribute quilt -- with its 71 unique squares, including the one featuring the photo of Bill and Joanne -- was born. It has made its way around North America, serving as a tangible reminder of the impact of AIDS.

With the support of many individual Rotarians from her club, Ms. Ashley continued to raise the profile of the Rotary AIDS committee. After much success in spreading the word through Rotary Clubs across Ontario, the group was branded as RADAR -- Rotary Action for the Development of AIDS Responses -- in 2003. Over the years, the group met with Stephen Lewis, with then prime minister Paul Martin, and with Bono. They've spoken at International AIDS Conferences, showcased the Canadian premier of A Closer Walk, and were instrumental in getting seven-year-old Paige Pedlar's children's book published. The Whitby native wrote the moving story after watching a documentary on the plight of orphaned children in Africa.

RADAR -- created by Ms. Ashley and implemented by a slew of volunteer Rotarians from district 7070, including local businessman Ray Richardson -- has since become a Canadian model for Rotary districts that want to help with the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The group uses the funds they raise with the help of such organizations as GM Canada and the MAC AIDS fund to support local, national and international AIDS initiatives and programs. The Howard Hospital in Zimbabwe has been the benefactor of much of their support.

When Ms. Ashley gets overwhelmed by the sheer size of the project, she thinks of her brother Bill.

"I am my brother's keeper," she says. "But it's not just him. I see Bill in many of the people I work with, the people who volunteer, who live with the disease, who fight to raise awareness. And together we just keep pushing on."

To find out more about RADAR, please visit