Quilt Project Gold Coast is a locally based nonprofit with an all-volunteer group and no overhead. All of our funds go directly to displays and HIV/AIDS awareness raising, and our volunteer efforts include information booths, displays at health fairs, churches, synagogues, colleges and festivals, as well as a speakers bureau and our very fun Quilting bees.
Quilt Project’s Board president KEITH COFFMAN-GREY came to his decades-long commitment to AIDS activism after many years in Democratic politics. In fact, he was an alternate delegate in 1976 at the Democratic convention that elected Jimmy Carter!
But when his partner Mark Wilson was diagnosed with AIDS in late 1984, Keith’s life changed forever. “In 1985 AIDS Project Los Angeles was just forming,” he says. “We joined APLA’s couples group. It was a desperate time; AIDS was a death sentence, and we knew our time together was short.”
Mark died in January 1986, leaving Keith dedicated to AIDS education and policy so others didn’t have to suffer the loss of their loved ones. He heard about the NAMES Project National AIDS Memorial Quilt after Mark passed on. “I learned about the Quilt in Gay magazines and on the news,” he recalls.
It was in the mid-90’s that Keith met his future husband, Neil Demers-Grey, and joined NAMES Project Ventura County’s Board of Directors as treasurer. He worked statewide on AIDS policy as Central Coast delegate to the LIFE/AIDS Lobby of Sacramento, as well as advocating at the local level as both president of Santa Barbara Stonewall Democrats and chair of the Santa Barbara County Democratic Central Committee.
After Neil was diagnosed with AIDS In 2003, Keith mostly withdrew from AIDS activism – until 2017, when Ventura County experienced a steep increase in new HIV infections. “We formed Quilt Project Gold Coast in response to this increase,” he explains. “The Quilts are an excellent way to educate and raise awareness so we can bring new infections down to zero.”
What advice does Keith have for younger Gays? “Be proactive and protect yourself. There are many ways to prevent HIV/AIDS – educate yourself.”
Yes, MARK LAGER is a cofounder of Quilt Project Gold Coast and Vice President on the Board. But he is so much more, and it was his visionary notion in the late 1980s that led to the creation of Quilt Project Ventura County in 1991.
“Wanting to be of support to the AIDS community,” he says, “I took on roles at AIDS Care, Inc. to help. I was in the buddy program, took clients to doctor appointments or social activities, and wrote for the newsletter.”
It was in the ACI newsletter that Mark first proposed the creation of a local chapter of NAMES Project, makers of the National Quilt. “I felt a compulsion to create a visible display for the entire community to see the devastation,” he explains. It was through his own grief at the loss of his sister and her family that in part brought him to make the commitment now spanning over 30 years.
Describing the standard size of the AIDS Memorial Quilts, Mark says, “Hearing the phrase ‘3×6 feet, about the size of a common grave plot,’ had an impact on me.”
Mark’s commitment and vision have brought scores of volunteers over the decades to the cause of AIDS, but this substantial legacy has had rewards for him as well. “It was a privilege to help those who could not help themselves. I felt a lot of compassion. I took off work many times to help my buddies. For today, I am even more aware of how important kindness and compassion are in life.”
It was this empathy that led the Kansas-born activist to service. “Prior to coming to Ventura, I (was) reading…where the CDC was tracking a new virus that was devastating the Gay community. I was becoming more aware of my sexuality, and felt a compassion and affiliation for those suffering. When my partner and I moved here, I excitedly looked for organizations to join. I met some members of the local community who were interested in creating a center to help those who had AIDS.”
Mark was aware of the activist group ACT-UP, which was highly visible in LA County and soon to form chapters in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. “(But I) knew I was not an in-your-face activist,” he says, and wanted to support the cause in other ways – hence AIDS Care, Inc., which led to the formation of Quilt Project Ventura County and then NAMES Project Ventura County.
Now, after decades of service to both HIV/AIDS and the LGBTI community, Mark, who is retiring next year from his IT management job at the Ventura County Library, helps to lead QPGC.
Mark’s main focus in Quilt Project is remembering those who have died. “I believe their spirits are around us when we remember them. It is a powerful way to heal the devastation we have seen in the community, and to make the larger community aware that the disease is still with us.
“I was overwhelmed when I was told I had HIV, but it is no longer a death sentence. Get tested routinely; be responsible for your sexual health.”
Although we in Quilt Project Gold Coast often say we are very unskilled at the sewing crafts, in the case of co-founder and Board Secretary CINDY COPELAND BURRELL, that is not quite the case.
“I won a blue ribbon at the Fair for the totebag I sewed in 4th grade,” Cindy reveals. “But,” she adds, “my skills got rusty over the years, and it’s been fun to be back doing handwork again.
“That’s one of the great things about the bees – anyone who wishes to participate can contribute, no matter if they’ve never sewn or quilted before.”
Cindy finds a spiritual element in quilting. “Especially in these hate- and virus-ravaged days,” she says, “it’s healing to spend time with likeminded people working to improve our little corner of the world.”
For three decades Cindy has been part of sewing Quilts to remember those lost to AIDS. She sometimes ponders a world where CHRISTOPHER DYE and others weren’t gone. “As with all the brilliant, compassionate people whose lives are cut short, you wonder how much better the world would be if they had been able to continue working to change it.”
Cindy moved to Ventura in the late 80s. “AIDS wasn’t very well understood by many at that time,” she says, and she got involved in AIDS Care, Inc. to help out. From hotline volunteer to volunteer coordinator and Boardmember, she befriended both Mark Lager and Neil Demers-Grey, who were forming a local chapter of the NAMES Project, remaining involved with NPVC until the turn of the millennium.
With the rise in new infections in 2017, the activists reformed as Quilt Project Gold Coast to raise awareness and help bring infections down. “So here we are nearly 30 years later – Neil, Keith, Mark and I reunited against this pervasive disease, joined by other wonderful activists and volunteers.” Among her other accomplishments, Cindy has co-hosted three successful harbor cruise fundraisers.
After so many years of experience, what would the Cindy of today advise the young activist just getting involved? “Don’t get distracted by infighting and petty politics or ego trips. Keep focused on the reason for the Quilt: to raise awareness and to remember.”
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