Meet Joanne Ashley, acclaimed HIV/AIDS advocate

Joanne Ashley sitting in her art studio where she likes to paint for her friends. Photo credit: Jackie Graves

When William (Bill) Donaldson came out to his sister, Joanne Ashley, homosexuality was not as accepted as it is now. Ashley, now 83, pauses to remember what she said to him.

“I said to him bluntly, as only I could do, ‘Is this a choice you made Bill?’ and he said, ‘Everyone in the world wants to think it’s a choice, but you’re born like this,'” remembers Ashley.”‘Why would I choose to be put aside?’ he said.”

Bill, who was 11 years younger than his sister, was infected with HIV/AIDS after traveling to California. In 1991, Bill lay dying in Toronto General Hospital.

Ashley says there was so much stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS that his room was littered with juice boxes. Bill was too weak to push the straw through and staff were too afraid to clean up after him.

“People were frightened of it,” she says.

Due to his illness, Ashley was not allowed to have any skin-to-skin contact with Bill and had to wear gloves.

“I took them off to have the skin contact anyhow,” she says.

In 1995, she joined the Rotary Club of Whitby at a time when discussions about HIV/AIDS weren’t on the table. By 1996, she says she was one of the first people to tell a personal story about a loved one with HIV/AIDS and advocate for education about the disease.

She resolved to change this, and she did.

Ashley was the first female president of the Rotary Club of Whitby and founded the Rotary Action for the Development of AIDS Responses (RADAR), which looks to challenge Rotarians to make meaningful changes in the HIV/AIDS community.

Recently, Ashley was presented with the Dr. Bob Scott Disease Prevention Award for her efforts within the HIV/AIDS community. Previously, the award had only been given to two other members, including Bill Gates for his efforts to end polio.

The acclaimed advocate created the Slice of Life Project, an event held by Rotary where inspirational speakers in the HIV/AIDS community can educate others. She also brought the Red Scarf Project to Durham. This initiative is an annual event leading up to World Aids Day. Community members make red scarves and these are tied around trees for those in need.

This year, the scarves included informational cards detailing statistics about HIV/AIDS.

Mary Lou Harrison, Director of Rotary District 7070, met Ashley in 2003 at a conference in Belleville.

“You don’t live in Whitby very long and in Rotary without meeting Joanne,” Harrison says with a laugh. “ Harrison says her and Joanne got to talking and by 2005, she agreed to join her cause

Harrison isn’t shy about making her admiration for Ashley and her accomplishments clear.

“Joanne is a force of nature. She is a very passionate person, but she’s also someone who is able to translate her passion into very concrete passion and bring people along with her in the fight,” she says.

Debbie Morgan, fellow Rotarian and co-chair of Rotary Action for the Development of AIDS Responses (RADAR), feels the same about Ashley.

“I assist Joanne in whatever endeavors that we’re trying to do,” says Morgan. “As long as she’s doing it, I’ll be with her.”

The acclaimed advocate wasn’t always in the spotlight. Ashley grew up as a farm girl along with her three older brothers and youngest brother, Bill, just northeast of Orangeville.

“We each had what we had to do, and if you compared it to what I’ve done with AIDS, you work it with it to the best of your ability,” says Ashley.

At 18, she went into nursing at the Ontario Hospital, Whitby where she studied psychiatry. She did the other half of her nursing at Toronto General Hospital and Sick Kids Hospital. She became a registered nurse in 1956.

Joanne got her start in humanitarian efforts after heading the “Christmas Wish Tree,” a small initiative where people could buy coloured Christmas lights to decorate a tree in front of the Ontario Hospital, Whitby.

The proceeds went directly back into patient care.

Today, she spends her free time painting for friends, going to the movies, and continuing to advocate for groups at risk. Most recently, she’s poured her efforts into the Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Strategy.

Ashley doesn’t accept all of the credit herself. She attributes much of her success to the people who helped her along the way.

“I may have started this, but if it weren’t for everybody who followed me, we would be nowhere,” she says. “You go far alone faster, but you go further if you’re with people.”