Mike Vandewater

Mike Vandewater, the last surviving founder of Legacy Counseling Center, died this month in Dallas and will be memorialized on at Gaston Baptist Church at 11 a.m. Friday, June 29.

Vandewater, along with eight other men who initially met at an HIV-positive support group in the mid-1980s when AIDS was still a relatively new and often misunderstood disease, recognized the growing need for specialized mental health services for  individuals challenged with HIV.  The other eight founders — James Measley, John Moore, Clint Johnson, Marvin Levick, Mike Coleman, Bob Gressett, Chuck Mittleman and George Constantinidis —all died of AIDS between 1991 and 1994.  Vandewater lived as an HIV-positive individual for approximately 30 years.

In 1996, Legacy Counseling Center opened Founders Cottage to provide hospice-related services for persons in the final stages of AIDS. At the dedication ceremony, Vandewater called Founders Cottage a “realization of a dream.” Since that time, thanks to medical advancements in the treatment of HIV and AIDS, the mission of Founders Cottage has shifted from only providing hospice-type services to becoming a special care facility with emphasis on recovery and rehabilitation. Over the past 16 years, the demographics of clients has changed as well, from being almost exclusively gay white men to significantly more African-Americans, Hispanics and women.

“I remember meeting Mike in the earliest days of Legacy,” said Melissa Grove, executive director of Legacy who was also Founders Cottage’s original program director. “The topic of AIDS was taboo for people, and it was very difficult to get support from just about anyone. Where others wanted to bury their head  in the sand, Mike bravely pushed forward and made this agency survive, through whatever means he could. The Cottage was his real labor of love, and he spent hundreds of hours rehabilitating the home that would go on to help so many people who otherwise would be alone, dying without care.”

Born on July 1, 1946, in El Dorado, Ark., Vandewater attended Henderson State College where he was a member of Phi Lambda Chi fraternity and was named to Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities. He later received his master’s degree in psychology from Stephen F. Austin University.  He spent the majority of his professional career working with the Richardson Independent School District  as a school psychologist. Vandewater is survived by his parents, Van and Betty Vandewater of Friendswood; his sisters, Gail Ramsell of Houston and Karen Fikes of North Little Rock, Ark.; and his brother, David Vandewater of Nashville. Vandewater’s closest friends included the family of Ted Porter and Bubba and Tammy Weems, all of Dallas.

Legacy Counseling Center provides individual and group therapy to HIV-positive people and their families. Legacy also operates Founders Cottage, a seven-bedroom house that provides 24-hour care for critically ill AIDS patients in a home-like setting.

In lieu of flowers, the family req­uested donations be made to Legacy Counseling Center and Founders Cottage in the name and memory of Mike Vandewater.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 29, 2012.