A Patchwork of Life

Gil Charest’s Living Quilt Fund in 20th year of helping those living with HIV

On page one in the More… Healthy Connections cookbook, a quote nestles alongside recipes for Pearle’s Nuts & Bolts and Crustless Mini Quiche.

It reads: “Defeat isn’t bitter if you don’t swallow it.”

Refusing defeat through sheer practicality, it seems, is Gil Charest’s specialty. The coil-bound kitchen tome is the second edition of Charest’s self-published fundraising tool, containing recipes contributed by himself, family and friends. The instructions are short and sensible — none more than half a page long. Some include quips about a recipe’s storied culinary origins and most are listed with ingredients common to pantries stocked prior to the Food Network era. Tips for Fancy Party Sandwiches and how-tos on microwave cooking are near the index.

The book emphasizes its author’s no-nonsense approach to getting things done. It’s how Charest built the Living Quilt Fund, which is about to enter its 20th year at
Edmonton Community Foundation. When he established the fund, his efforts were focused on assisting people living with HIV and AIDS, even if it was a nickel at a time.

“It was political,” Charest says. “HIV was a big LGBTQ issue, and at the time it was like pulling teeth to get any kind of funding out of the government. So, I thought, ‘I’ve had enough of this. They’re not going to fund it. I’m going to have to do it myself.’”

Since 1999, Charest has grown the fund, granted the majority of proceeds to the Living Positive for Positive Living Society, and — in tougher years when Living Positive was not operating — to the Pride Centre of Edmonton. He started the fund with $1,000 of his own, and by 2003 had raised the required $10,000 for the fund to begin granting. The fund’s current balance, now tipping $41,000, has been raised through direct sales of Charest’s two cookbooks, as well as a diligent habit of bottle-picking on daily walks in his Oliver neighbourhood.

During our interview at his home, he explains that he doesn’t have anyone helping him per se, but folks who know his habits find ways to contribute. He points to a bag of bottles in the kitchen sink that his down-the-hall neighbours recently offered up.

“In the last year, I added just over $2,000 into the fund that was mostly through the collection of recycling.” In the early days of the fund, friends held garage sales or would send a small cheque in the mail. “But, I would say 90 per cent has been recycling money, for the whole $40,000. It’s amazing. I go two-and-a-half blocks maybe once a day, and in that two-and-a-half blocks, people have thrown out over $2,000 worth over the year. I don’t get how people can be so wasteful, actually. It blows me away.”

The Living Quilt Fund began in 1998 with an actual quilt. The constantly evolving textile hangs in the headquarters of Living Positive for most of the year, and Charest proudly manages the adding and tracking of names on the quilt each month. The three-panel quilt was created by Charest’s friend Birnie Smith and was conceived in contrast to the trend of commemorating those who passed
away in the early years of the pandemic.

The reality in those years was that many living with HIV didn’t even disclose their diagnosis until death did it for them — a tragedy epitomized by the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the personalized, handmade panels of which became emblematic of the advocacy movement that followed.

“I was going through a very dark period. I had lost more friends than anybody should have at my age,” says Charest. One day, someone talked him into attending a workshop put on by the Hope Foundation, where participants were given homework to create a project that focused on hope. “After some days of contemplation, I came up with the idea of using a quilt, but to turn the whole idea upside down.” As such, the idea of the Living Quilt was born.

“HIV is not the sentence it used to be,” says Living Positive’s Executive Director, Rolund Peters. “The quilt exemplifies what Living Positive is all about, not only for our society but for each individual living with HIV.”

The quilt on display has names of people who are HIV positive displayed with a number, reflecting the years they’ve survived with the diagnosis. The numbers on the quilt today go from one to 25+ years alongside 143 names.

“Now we are seeing our members living well into their senior years. With the quilt we are able to display to diagnosed individuals that their life is not over, but rather just changed. To see the mindset change in those individuals cannot be overstated. I cannot tell you how many people come into our office with tears in their eyes, but leave with cheer in their voice. This is the power of the Living Quilt,” Peters says.

Peters adds that the Living Quilt Fund has been essential and consistent, offering annual proceeds from the endowment to go into operations and services for members that other funding may not support.

Now granting more than $2,000 a year, Charest says endowment funds offer a sustained way to support causes closest to one’s heart and passion. It’s not millions, but $2,000 a year can mean a great deal to an organization like Living Positive. “It’s kept the lights on,” says Charest, 71, who remains a dedicated member of the society’s board of directors. “It’s being that basic, really. And for quite a few years, it’s been a slog just keeping the place open for people to come in and access the resources.”

“I’m happy with what the fund is doing now. It’s really tough when it’s just small, but now it’s kind of taken on a life of its own,” he says with a smile. “I’ll probably still do some recycling, some collecting. But I’m retired now, I don’t have the energy.”

His grin, cheekily, suggests otherwise.