Following a year of brainstorming sessions Father Tom Beggin, a Catholic priest at Holy Rosary Church in Billings, MT, and a circle of close friends and family in 1994 established the first Board of Directors for AIDSpirit USA, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.
In the early years, Gays and other individuals infected with HIV/AIDS faced hatred, bigotry, ignorance, and even isolation from society. This stigma, however, had the opposite effect on Father Tom, creating in him a passion to educate society and to provide a safe environment for this small but growing segment of society. Hence the following mission statement was crafted and adopted by the AIDSpirit USA board in 1994 and revised in 2008:
AIDSpirit USA, a non-denominational faith based movement guided by the Spirit, ministers to individuals infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS. We seek to raise the level of awareness and compassion for individuals with HIV/AIDS and to provide them emotional and spiritual support along with nourishing meals, education, clean water and improved living conditions.
Promoting awareness through education, the group concentrated their efforts on making presentations in churches throughout the Catholic Diocese of Montana.
AIDSpirit Montana members also sought to provide safe environments for annual retreats and social gatherings such as Compassion Sunday services, picnics, potluck suppers, and any event that would provide fellowship for clients and families.
With each ensuing year, the need for more and more individualized services evolved into many new programs. In 1999, Sister Mary V Maronick wrote a grant to the Sisters of Charity Leavenworth requesting $7000 to begin a Partnership Meals Program. Her grant, accepted and funded in October of that same year, provided a stipend for a coordinator, money to supplement the food used by volunteer meal providers, and gas stipends for volunteer drivers.
The spring of 2000 would find Father Tom once again planting seeds that would catapult AIDSpirit USA from being a local outreach to one with a more global presence. At a monthly AIDSpirit USA meeting Fr. Tom displayed a copy of a Newsweek magazine featuring the picture of a child in Africa dying of HIV/AIDS and he knew he had to do something to help. Putting his words into action, Father Tom decided to host a garage sale that would net over $200 and become the “First Annual AIDSpirit USA Garage Sale”.
His actions inspired several members to lead events such as bake sales, an Air Show, creating, crafting and marketing Africa Angel Dolls all in an effort to raise funds. The combined fundraising efforts of these early pioneers would help to establish and fund the international outreach programs of AIDSpirit USA that center on meeting the vast needs created by the terrible effects of the AIDS pandemic both in the US and in Africa.
In the spring of 2006, Nadine Hart, a Physicians Assistant with St. Vincent Healthcare, attended an AIDSpirit USA meeting where she introduced Kenny Mwange, a young man she had met while working with sickle-cell and HIV/AIDS victims in Uganda. Due in no small part to her efforts, Kenny was transported to the US where he had received successful surgery to repair his hips damaged by the sickle-cell disease. The two became active members of AIDSpirit USA where Kenny urged members to sponsor five of his friends in Uganda orphaned by HIV/AIDS so that they could attend school. Several weeks later, Kenny again pled his case for four more of his friends thereby establishing the AIDSpirit Sponsorship program!
Brother Bede Baldry and many other wonderful individuals helped AIDSpirit USA to establish personal contacts in Africa that would insure that all funds donated would go directly to assist those living with HIV/AIDS and/or their caretakers. A contact with Father Joseph in northern Uganda through the National Catholic AIDS Network put the group in direct contact with four young individuals who would acquire an education with financial assistance from members and friends of AIDSpirit USA. To date 43 children receive an education as a direct result of the sponsorship efforts of AIDSpirit USA.
Terry Fettig, the presiding chairperson for AIDSpirit USA in 2007, traveled to Kenya and Uganda to personally meet with the children that are being sponsored by the efforts of AIDSpirit USA. His maiden voyage would prove to be yet another turning point in the history of AIDSpirit USA. Terry witnessed first hand the pain, suffering, anguish and despair, that individuals experience everyday in these regions. This suffering is magnified by the persistent lack of clean water (a preventable situation), unsanitary conditions, and the rampant spread of HIV/AIDS. Recording these sad events, Terry returned to the US where he immediately began his campaign to involve others in the quest to reverse the effects of HIV/AIDS and several other devastating diseases.
Terry’s efforts and that of other members of AIDSpirit USA, would result in securing funds needed to drill a successful bore hole water well that would serve an entire community. In addition, AIDSpirit USA purchased steel forms used to build bio-sand filters that can be utilized by individual homes to filter 99% of the water borne bacteria found in Africa. On one of his return trips, Terry invited several friends with expertise in water technology and through their combined efforts, drip irrigation was installed, over 40 BioSand Filters® were constructed and 1000 new LifeStraws® were distributed to children in Africa. Each LifeStraw will allow a child to drink pure water for one full year at a cost of only $15 each.
Leaders as well as the many volunteers associated with this exciting organization share a universal passion that affects anyone who will listen to their message. Friends and members volunteer their time, their heart, their prayers and their energy everyday in an effort to make a change for individuals who have been affected or infected by HIV/AIDS.
In 2009 the AIDSpirit board voted to change the name of AIDSpirit Montana to AIDSpirit USA. Though we are proud of our roots, the addition of several new members from Miles City, Great Falls and Denver dictates that we begin to think more nationally. We hope soon to have fully-operational AIDSpirit chapters throughout the entire USA that share our mission and commitment.
In 2010 and 2011, we continued our local outreach programs, including the meals program, helping supply the pantry at Yellowstone Aids Project and contributing a monthly stipend to Riverstone Health to help Aids patients pay for incidentals. Also, teams traveled to Uganda to oversee the digging of fresh water wells; the running of sickle cell and general health clinics; the building of a fence around the future site of the new Tender Mercies orphanage; the construction of a cooking hut at the existing Tender Mercies orphanage; the laying of drip irrigation and planting of seeds at the new Tender Mercies and village in the north; the donation and delivery of computers at Aunt Vicky’s school; the donation and delivery of sewing machines to Memorial Hospital in Kalongo; and the enrolling of our sponsored children in school. Our tuition sponsorship program now stands at fifty-nine students. A building fund has been established to build our new Tender Mercies orphanage. We hope to begin construction in 2012. The orphans we serve are making good progress. Steven is shown in a picture taken in 2008, when he first came to us, and again in 2011. There is a spark in him. He is happy and content.
We welcome with open arms all people regardless of their age, race, creed, religion or culture to join us in this important ministry.