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    In sickness and in health

    By JON WILSON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


    GULFPORT -- Like many people, Bill Buster and his wife use a van as their main link to the world.

    So life took a nose dive when another motorist rear-ended the van at a traffic light Dec. 6. The crash didn't render the 1995 Aerostar undrivable, but it bent the frame, smashed in the back and delivered enough internal damage to make the vehicle click and groan.

    "You wouldn't want to take it more than a few blocks," Shelley Harrington-Buster said. Her husband wears a neck brace while recovering from neck strain and whiplash trauma.

    The accident would certainly be an annoyance for anyone. But this one also had a major impact on the couple's family. Buster and Harrington-Buster operate a pediatric care center called Autumn's House for young patients with AIDS and HIV.

    Four adopted children 9 or younger live at the Gulfport house. One, Danielle Buster, 8, has been legally adopted. The others are in the process. Two children from Harrington-Buster's first marriage also live at Autumn's House.

    Buster uses the van to drive the children and his wife, who also has the AIDS virus, to medical appointments. (Because of the accident, his own appointments are now included in the schedule.) There are trips back and forth to two schools. Harrington-Buster and her son Rick Harrington visit schools in the area to talk about the disease. Buster, besides taking care of the family, delivers meals to the needy. He expects to be at less than full speed for up to six months.

    It's not certain how much it will cost to repair the van, but the family has been told it will be an eight-day job.

    Meanwhile, Mark Wilson is organizing help for Autumn's House for the holiday season. The Holiday resident has a business, A Wonderful Coffee, in Clearwater. His ultimate goal is to fully fund the home through sales from the gift store.

    "My desire is to get Autumn's House to be a household name, like the Ronald McDonald House," Wilson said.

    Wilson, 43, has taken on the mission in memory of his brother Willie Wilson, who died of AIDS in 1992. He said he began helping Autumn's House through fundraisers with the Clearwater Junior Chamber of Commerce, but eventually decided to try to help more directly.

    Among his goals are financing the building of more rooms at the house to accommodate more children.

    "It's a big wagon and I never intended to pull it by myself," Wilson said. "I'm going to stand here and make a racket until someone comes and helps me."

    The Busters got the wagon rolling. The couple began Autumn's House about six years ago after Autumn Marie Harrington died at age 8 from AIDS-related complications. Harrington-Buster had adopted Autumn when she was 3.

    Another adopted child, Nicholas Adam Stevens, died when he was 8 months old. He had lived with the family since the age of 8 weeks.

    A golden container with Autumn's ashes rests on a shelf in the living room. It went with the family on a trip to Disney World. Nearby are Nicholas' booties and a seashell that contained his baptismal water.

    Caring for children with AIDS and the virus is now the couple's life.

    Harrington-Buster said her goal is to have 10 children live at Autumn's House, which she says is the only private pediatric AIDS care home in Florida -- a state home to 1,385 children 13 and younger with AIDS, according to the Florida AIDS Hotline.

    "Actually, the number is higher than that because of the number that goes unreported," Harrington-Buster said. "It doesn't reflect the true picture, unfortunately."

    Though the couple uses social services to keep Autumn's House going, no direct funding comes from any social service agency. Social Security checks provide income to meet the house's estimated $2,500 to $3,000 monthly budget, Harrington-Buster said.

    "We're not funded by anybody, but people have been good to us," she said.

    Catholic Charities oversees the Autumn's House Foundation, which is the conduit for fundraising. The last fundraiser for Autumn's House was 18 months ago, Harrington-Buster said.

    Bill Buster doesn't work outside the house. "This is basically his full-time job," Harrington-Buster said. "I don't drive, so I've got to have a driver." She said glaucoma made her decide to quit driving six years ago.

    Buster does most of the cooking, too. One night last week, he labored over a pork loin, which he expected would provide lunch leftovers after that night's supper.

    "They like my cooking and (Shelley's) cleaning," Buster said.

    Like Wilson, Harrington-Buster has a highly personal motivation.

    Rick Harrington, her first husband, received a diagnosis of AIDS in 1987, although he had apparently gotten the disease years before. Harrington-Buster learned she had the AIDS virus, and the couple's son Rick, now 19, also eventually tested positive. Another son, John Colby Harrington, 13, has remained healthy.

    Rick Harrington died in 1988. Two years later, Shelley married Bill Buster, who had been running an Alzheimer's disease program.

    Harrington-Buster has plaques from the Clearwater and Florida Jaycees. Both named her 1997's Outstanding Floridian for her work.

    Elma Settle helps coordinate programs for the Florida Family AIDS Network and is aware of Harrington-Buster's work.

    "She really takes very good care of those children," Settle said. "I've seen her at the clinic when she brings the children in, and they always looked wonderful. I'm always impressed with how well she manages with so many kids."

    Settle noticed another interesting element in Harrington-Buster's effort.

    "It's always been a thing when a white family has black children, the big thing with the black community was, what about their culture being robbed? Or, "Us black people take care of our hair differently than white people do.'

    "But Shelley does their hair, and she had someone teach her" braiding and other techniques, Settle said.

    For information on fundraising, clothing or food drives for Autumn's House, call Mark Wilson at 723-0445. For information about Autumn's House, go to http://www.AWonderfulCoffeeCo.com on the Internet.

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