Even in the mid-1990s, AIDS was a stigmatized and secretive disease; the people who died from it were often hidden away from society.
Amanda Vermillion was determined to prevent that from happening to her brother after he died from AIDS 21 years ago.
She organized an AIDS Awareness Week at Center Grove High School, planned educational programs throughout the year and spoke at conferences throughout Indiana.
Using a journal that her brother, Rusty, left her after he died, she has created a monologue performance that has been staged in Los Angeles many times.
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“I always wanted him to have a voice, and he never got to have one,” she said. “It’s ironic that, through his story, he’s affecting people all over the world.”
As a high school student, Vermillion helped put a face on the AIDS epidemic in the Center Grove community at a time when the disease was still misunderstood. She has continued to work to raise awareness regarding AIDS, framing her brother’s story in a way to help others learn more about it.
The work that she’s done is a tribute to Rusty, she said.
“He is my big brother; he was always very protective of me. I know that he’s very proud that I decided to do something because I believed in him,” she said. “Now, through his death, he’s touching even more people.”
Inside Crown Hill Cemetery, the Indiana AIDS Memorial serves as a reminder of how the disease has touched so many Hoosier families. A centerpiece sculpture depicts a pair of intertwining hands which form the shape of a lapel ribbon. Around the monument, a semi-circle of limestone tablets features 138 names of Indiana residents or natives who have died from AIDS.
The memorial is a special place for Vermillion.
“This is why we have cemeteries; this is why we have memorials, because we have a need to leave a mark in some way,” she said. “It always bothered me a little bit that Rusty was cremated, and I’ve never had anywhere to go to put flowers at.”
The Indiana AIDS Memorial was created in 2000 to remember the impact the epidemic has had in the community. At the time, it was one of only four monuments in the U.S. dedicated to victims of the epidemic, joining ones in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Key West, Florida. It was the only one in a cemetery.
Through her involvement in AIDS awareness, Vermillion learned about the Indiana AIDS Memorial and wanted to see if she could get her brother’s name etched in it.
The Health Foundation of Greater Indianapolis, which oversees the memorial, offers grants to help families pay to have their loved ones’ names put on the memorial. The grant program is a way to get more people remembered on the memorial and overcome issues of stigma, uncertainty and cost, said Jason Grisell, president and CEO.
“Whatever the barrier might be for a family or friend, we want to help overcome it,” Grisell said in a statement. “We know more than 6,000 Hoosiers have lost their lives due to AIDS since 1981. We also know that friends and families who lost loved ones, especially in the early days of the epidemic, endured a flood of emotions. They may not even know the memorial is there for them to honor their loved one.”
Vermillion was offered a grant to put Rusty’s name on the memorial, an offer she emotionally accepted.
“I remember, I just started crying,” she said. “It means a lot that now people will see his name, and I’ll have somewhere to go, my parents will have somewhere, my family will have somewhere to go, to remember all of the people who are part of that.”
Vermillion’s relationship with Rusty was an unusual one, as he was 12 years older than her.
But what she lacks in personal memories of Rusty is made up for by a journal that he started writing in after he was diagnosed with AIDS. He willed it to Vermillion after he died, and his words provided exceptional insight into his mindset and the circumstances surrounding his life as a young adult.
Rusty struggled with his homosexuality throughout his teenage and adult years. He would get in fights in school to prove his masculinity and bristled when classmates would tease him and call him “gay,” Vermllion said.
But he also embraced his uniqueness, she said. He loved fashion, and took pride in his big ‘80s hairstyle, she said.
He contracted AIDS in his early 20s and lived with the disease for seven years before dying in 1997.
The disease weakened his body. Rusty lost more and more weight and eventually contracted pneumonia. With his immune system compromised by AIDS, he couldn’t fight off the infection, and his lungs collapsed. He was just 28 years old.
Vermillion was a junior when her brother died. She had never thought much about AIDS until her brother was diagnosed, but she realized that AIDS was a disease that could impact anybody. Her mission became to help other people in the Center Grove community understand it better.
She was her class vice president on Center Grove’s student council, and she approached her advisor about doing some kind of program at school regarding AIDS. The response she received was, “Good luck with that.”
“That kind of lit the fire under me. When I was younger, if you told me no, I would work even harder to do it,” she said.
Working with Paula French, an Indianapolis health advocate active in AIDS education and prevention, Vermillion learned more about educational programs and what she could do to help her classmates better understand the disease. She took what she had learned and presented it to the Center Grove school board about starting an awareness week.
The first AIDS Awareness Week at Center Grove High School was in 1997 and featured speakers who came to share their stories with her classmates.
“They were seeing a different face of AIDS. It wasn’t an older gay man, skinny and dying. These were young people like them,” Vermillion said.
The project raised money for the Damien Center, an organization dedicated to serving Indiana residents with AIDS and HIV through treatment and prevention. She contributed money that was raised to the AIDS Quilt and to Parkview Manor, a nursing home for AIDS patients.
As she became more vocal about sharing her story, she was invited to speak at conferences throughout the state and as far away as Boston about the disease.
For her work, she was named an Indiana finalist for the Prudential Spirit of Community Initiative, a national program recognizing youths for acts of volunteerism.
After graduating from Center Grove High School, Vermillion moved out West to study theater at the University of California-Los Angeles. Living in Los Angeles, she was confronted more forcefully by the AIDS epidemic.
She became involved in the “buddy” program in the city, in which she volunteered to provide emotional support and social interaction to AIDS patients.
Vermillion now splits her time between living in California and in the Central American country of Belize. To further carry on her brother’s legacy, she aims to start an organization in Belize to provide AIDS education.
“They don’t do a lot of education or prevention, and it’s really scary. So my goal, now that I’ve visited there, I want to start more peer education and get more awareness there,” she said. “It’s just another way to help Rusty’s life touch more people.”
What: A monument honoring and remembering the Indiana natives and residents who have died from AIDS.
Where: The memorial is located inside Crown Hill Cemetery, 700 38th St., Indianapolis.
When was it built: The original monument was dedicated on Oct. 29, 2000. A renovation and upgrade of the site was completed earlier this year, and a re-dedication ceremony was conducted Friday, which was World AIDS Day.
How to support the memorial: Donations can be made at giving.thfgi.org/memorial
How to have a name included on the memorial: People can have the name of a loved one inscribed on the limestone tablets at the Indiana AIDS Memorial. The cost is $100 per name, $50 of which is tax deductible to support the Indiana AIDS Fund.
Grants available: The Health Foundation of Greater Indianapolis, which oversees the memorial, is offering grants to help families and friends place the name of a loved one on the memorial.
People can apply for a grant at the foundation’s website, thfgi.org/special-events/indiana-aids-memorial. The deadline to apply is Wednesday.