Chrysalis creates community for guests with AIDS

On the way into Pownal, Vt., there is a huge sign on the right side of the road. “Love” is spelled out in huge letters intertwined with white Christmas lights on the hill, just below a white 19th century farmhouse with green trim.

Love is indeed the mission statement of Sunshine Wohl, the founder of the Chrysalis Community home for people with advanced-stage AIDS.

Once a child psychologist, Wohl was profoundly affected by her brother John’s death from AIDS in 1987. She promised him that she would devote her life to working with AIDS patients. She began by working in Florida hospitals but did not find it fulfilling; she saw that many people were dying in a clinical environment, away from loving friends and family.

At last, she moved to Williamstown, bought a house here and spread the word that she was interested in assisting those with AIDS. No one sought her out, so she decided she would have to assume a more active role. Last spring, she sold her Williamstown house and used the proceeds to buy the farmhouse off of Rt. 7 where she now resides.

When she began renovating the farmhouse, Wohl was concerned that the people of Pownal, a conservative, rural community, would dislike the idea of an AIDS residence nearby; she said that there is still a social stigma attached to the disease and those who suffer from it. Wohl was amazed by the positive response she received. Pleased by the fact that Wohl has restored the farmhouse to its original 19th century style and impressed by the love she shows everyone she meets, Pownal has welcomed the beginnings of Wohl’s Chrysalis Community.

Chrysalis is a residence for people with advanced-stage AIDS, people who have been told that modern medicine cannot help them anymore. Wohl refers to these people as “guests,” not patients; she emphasizes that this is a non-medical facility meant to celebrate life, love and creativity, not death. She believes that when people are free from the fear of death, they are then free to create. Through “spontaneous healing” – that is, being surrounded by unconditional love and acceptance – people will live longer.

Wohl wishes for “no one [to be] alone on their path… I feel very privileged to be the vehicle through which all this is working,” she said. “The universe has guided me the whole trip.”

Chrysalis Community is the first residence of its kind in the country. Wohl hopes that other people will be inspired by what she has done and will build other places like it. When the first house is firmly established, she wishes to build other houses for more guests on the 100 acres surrounding it.

Wohl has had a strong influence on the Williams students who have worked with her in building her dream. Last spring, the Lehman Community Service Council sent representatives to see the Chrysalis house. “Lehman Council is so excited by [Chrysalis] and inspired by her vision,” Dani Lerro ’05 said. Students helped to paint the walls of the house and clear the yard around it, and last spring Lehman organized a benefit concert to raise money for it.

About 20 students currently plan to volunteer at the Chrysalis Community on a regular basis. According to Abby Kelton ’04, “Sunshine is wonderful. I admire the way she puts her faith in the world for things to work out, and sure enough the love and generosity she shares comes back to her tenfold.”

The “Love” sign on the hill in front of Chrysalis Community sums up Wohl herself as well as her goals. It is her way of letting the world know that “something special [is] happening here.”