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Margaret Sullivan, fundraiser and former board member of AIDS Action


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Turned heartbreak into action

Many people who survive a tragedy are motivated to give back to those who helped. Some write a check. Some make a phone call to ask what they can do. But few do what Margaret Sullivan did: made a phone call, volunteered her time, wrote a few checks, and then implemented a fundraising mechanism that raised $2.1 million.

In 1986, Sullivan was married, working in the high-tech industry, and devoted to her best friend Geoffrey, a gay African American man with whom she lived before marrying. One day she received a phone call from a suburban hospital: Geoffrey was sick. Sullivan rushed to the hospital only to find Geoffrey in a psychotic state and confined in a strait jacket. Geoffrey, with whom she had gone out dancing just a few weeks earlier, didn’t even recognize her.

‘People were just there for the common goodness and dignity of life.’

Hospital officials were vague about what had happened to him other than to say he had had a grand mal seizure, which made little sense to Sullivan. She had known Geoffrey for years. He didn’t have epilepsy and had never before shown any seizure-like symptoms. She demanded to speak with the doctor in charge. When he would not give her additional information, Sullivan told him that she had friends in the Boston press and that if he didn’t tell her what was going on she would call them and tell them that “you are caging a black man in your very white, suburban hospital.”

The doctor finally told her that Geoffrey had AIDS (this was before any laws regarding HIV/AIDS confidentiality had been enacted). “I said, ‘Okay, now we can get somewhere,’” Sullivan recalls. Geoffrey was immediately transferred to a downtown hospital that treated people with AIDS in an infectious disease unit.

Sullivan learned as much as she could about AIDS, visited Geoffrey nearly daily, and helped his mother arrange for his care when he was discharged from the hospital. She also called AIDS Action Committee, because she had heard that the agency had a buddies program that paired people with AIDS with a volunteer who would do errands as needed but, most importantly, as Sullivan notes, would “just sit with him and give him dignity.”

Within six months, about 13 more men from Geoffrey and Sullivan’s circle of friends also became sick with AIDS, and Geoffrey himself had died. Sullivan was heartbroken. A few years later, when she became pregnant with her first child, she called the AIDS Action Committee and told them about Geoffrey and what a difference the Buddy Program volunteer had made in his life. She asked if there was anything she could do help. “I think they thought it was kind of weird that this woman was calling out of the blue,” Sullivan laughs. But she got a meeting with Larry Kessler and Cheryl Shafer. It wasn’t quite clear at first to any of them how Sullivan could best be utilized. “They were kind of dragging their feet a little bit and said, ‘Well this is nice that you want to help, but we’re not really sure how we can use you,’” Sullivan recalls.

But she persisted. They finally settled on an employee survey that Sullivan, who had a background in organizational management, could implement. She did the work, wrote a report, and that could have been that. But it wasn’t. Not long after she completed the employee survey for AIDS Action, Sullivan and her husband were driving home from a weekend trip. “I said, ‘You know, we’ve really got to do something,” Sullivan recalls. “With this loss that we’ve had, we’ve got to turn it into some kind of action.”

And so they did. Sullivan’s husband, who was then working at Lotus (which was the first corporate sponsor of the AIDS Walk), told his coworkers that he and his wife would be fundraising for AIDS Action. A marketing director who worked with Sullivan’s husband had connections with the Sonesta Hotel and arranged a meeting for Sullivan and her husband with the hotel’s general manager. He loved the idea and, telling Sullivan about how the hospitality industry had been devastated by AIDS, committed his director of marketing to the project, which subsequently became a corporate philanthropic undertaking for Sonesta Hotel.

Working with Sonesta’s marketing director Sullivan and her husband organized “Everybody’s Business,” an auction featuring exotic trips, fine wine, and other donated luxury items. It was a huge success. That first event in 1994 raised about $150,000. Sullivan and her husband, working with Sonesta, held “Everybody’s Business” annually through 2000. In total, they raised $2.1 million for AIDS Action.

Since then, they have been patrons for ARTcetera and Sullivan has served on the AIDS Action Board of Directors. “The epidemic somehow brought out people who were just there for the common goodness and dignity of life,” Sullivan says. “The people who were most affected by it were able to actually give back and I haven’t been around anything like that in any way since then.”

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