Colleen Yates: How a grieving mother found a new calling

October 12, 2008 

Colleen Yates’ son Charlie died of AIDS in 1988. ‘It just makes me sick to think of all the families that sweep (AIDS) under the rug,’ she says.

C. ALUKA BERRY/CABERRY@THESTATE.COM

Colleen Yates spoke at the funeral when her son Charlie died of AIDS in 1988.

“This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” she said, quoting from the gospel of Matthew.

Rather than hide what her family was going through, Yates, a former Sumter councilwoman, chose to speak out against the stigma that leads friends and relatives to turn their backs on those with HIV/AIDS.

“It just makes me sick to think of all the families that sweep (AIDS) under the rug,” she said. “I had hoped .... when I had talked about how our family dealt with AIDS, that maybe I shed a bit of light on some family, somebody.”

Charlie was 33 and an architect in Atlanta when he fell ill on his return from a business trip in 1987. An ambulance took him directly to the hospital from the airport.

Yates and her husband, Bubba, got the news from their other adult children when they returned to Sumter from a 34th-anniversary trip to New York City.

Immediately, they called Charlie, who worried how the rest of the family would react to news of his illness.

“I told him the only thing we were concerned about had nothing to do with AIDS — it had to do with the possibility we may lose him,” Yates said.

Months later, Yates lost her husband, who died after a heart attack. One year to the day — in June 1988 — she lost Charlie.

In 2005, Yates was asked to join the board of Trinity Place, a Sumter nursing home Stephen Barrineau and his wife, Rhonda, set up for people with HIV/AIDS.

Yates said she didn’t need another meeting to attend, but she told him to call on her whenever he needed help.

Early this year, Barrineau again asked for Yates’ help when Trinity Place absorbed residents displaced when state authorities closed a Fairfield County nursing home.

Yates approached influential people in the community for help.

“I’ve been poor before, and I am poor, but I can beg for someone else,” she said.

Within a week, she collected $23,000 as well as food and clothing.

And so Charlie’s legacy continues, 20 years after his death.

On special days such as Christmas, Easter and birthdays, Yates visits Charlie’s grave.

Her heart is full as she reads the inscription on his tombstone: “To live in the hearts of those you leave behind is not to die.”

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