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AIDS pairs unlikely friends

Emily Wilson is a 51-year-old wife and mother of two grown sons, one married and the other about to be. She lives in a spacious Largo home that is immaculate yet has that comfortable lived-in look. She has been active in the Baptist church as a choir member and Sunday school teacher. She has lived here for 36 years, and her husband, Kent, is a St. Petersburg native.

Stefan Bongiovanni is a 40-year-old gay man who lives in St. Petersburg with his parents, who are in their 70s, and a 29-year-old brother. He moved here 12 years ago, coming from his native Brooklyn, N.Y., by way of San Francisco. He was raised in the Roman Catholic church but now attends the Metropolitan Community Church in St. Petersburg, which primarily serves people who are gay. He was diagnosed with AIDS five years ago.

"I come from a different world than Emily does," he says matter-of-factly.

Yet, Emily and Stefan are buddies, the best of buddies. They have known each other for two years, and call their relationship "a true friendship, a blessing."

"People concentrate so much on the dying," Emily said of AIDS. "We can't

do anything about their dying, but we can help them live."

"I feel like I've known her for years," Stefan said of Emily. "It's a nice, comfortable feeling."

Emily and Stefan were brought together through the Buddy Program of the AIDS Coalition Pinellas. (See accompanying story about the next series of Buddy Program training classes.) The program pairs those who have AIDS with people who primarily want to offer friendship. Buddies may drive patients to doctor appointments, help them with grocery shopping and guide them to social service agencies or support groups if they have problems with alcohol or drugs.

But their primary mission is to be a friend, in some cases a patient's only friend. Other patients, like Stefan, still live with their families and yet need someone with whom they can share their deepest feelings.

Stefan remembers his first meeting with Emily _ "this nice little lady, educated, with a nice house. What do we have in common?" he asked himself.

His apprehension increased when he learned a little about her husband _ "a man's man, a hunter, drives a truck, does manly stuff."

"I don't want to cause any waves," he told her. "I really want to know why you're doing this and does your husband know."

Yes, he knows and isn't too happy about it, Emily said at the time. She explained to Stefan that she always had been active in the community and had once operated a clothing and crafts consignment store. But she had spent the past seven years learning to live with Epstein-Barr Syndrome, a condition that causes chronic fatigue.

She controls it now with medication but has to be careful not to push too hard. "Please, Lord," she prayed. "Give me some type of ministry I can do that is constructive but not physically taxing."

She knew, of course, about AIDS and mentioned to her husband that she might be able to help in that field. "Would you please go back and pray again for a new direction?" he said.

She then talked to her doctor, who assured her that working with AIDS patients was not dangerous. And right after that she heard the Buddy Program mentioned on a TV program.

Stefan, meanwhile, had been paired with three buddies who didn't work out. One had his own emotional problems, another didn't seem to have the necessary time and still another just wanted to watch TV.

"I need conversation," Stefan said. Emily was perfect. "We both have a gift for gab," she said. They also have in common the need to "economize energy" because of their respective diseases. "We're a perfect match!" Stefan said with a smile. "We drag each other along."

They visit malls where they can walk in air-conditioned comfort. Although he can drive himself to most doctor appointments, she drives him to Tampa for eye injections. She got him interested in reading mystery novels and making rugs from a kit.

He visits in her home, and she sometimes sees him in his home.

Emily and Stefan went to the Tampa Convention Center to see an AIDS quilt. "It was so overwhelming," she said. "Each panel depicts a person who has lost his life to AIDS."

That's something else they talk about. Stefan said he paid Emily the "very high compliment" of asking her advice on his funeral arrangements.

Emily is struck by how much Stefan has changed in the two years they have been buddies. "He had a lot of anger and hostility," she said. "He was wrapped up in himself. He's a lot more concerned about other people now. He's a much happier person. He's gotten his life in order."

Stefan has started a spiritual support group for fellow AIDS patients at his church and has addressed other groups about AIDS.

Although Stefan has had bouts of pneumonia and suffers with eye problems, diabetes and lesions, he said, he's feeling much better these days. "You have to help yourself," he said, "but Emily is a big factor. She's an outsider coming in who cares.

"She's like a sister to me, a mother, a friend, a confidante. I can tell her anything. I feel comfortable with her. I trust her."

He has talked with her about his homosexuality. She accepts him, but she does not approve of that lifestyle.

"She doesn't wave a Bible at me like they do on TV," Stefan said. "But she has helped me a lot to love God and love myself."

Emily's husband finally met Stefan after about a year. He is sympathetic toward Stefan's medical problems, Emily said, and understanding of their Buddy Program relationship.

"It's not for everybody," Emily said of the program. But it has been rewarding for her.

It has, Stefan said, been the wondrous occurrence of "two separate worlds coming together."