Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had a plan to help children who have AIDS.
The psychiatrist, whose center to help people cope with death and dying is located on a 250-acre wooded estate here, wanted to set up the nation's first home to care for infants with the fatal disease.
What better place, she argued, than remote Highland County, the one spot where it seemed that acquired immune deficiency syndrome had not become another term for fear.
But since August, when Kubler-Ross decided to build the home, a bitterness has taken root in Virginia's least-populous county, a breathtaking stretch of the Shenandoah Valley 35 miles from Staunton.
"She might just as well have gone in there and said, 'I'm going to set up a leper colony on your land,' " said U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams, who has had a farm in the county for years. "The reception has not been warm."
More than 200 cases of AIDS among children under the age of 13 have been reported to federal authorities since the disease, which disables the body's immune system, was first identified in 1981. Most child victims get the disease at birth from their mothers, many of whom are drug users who contracted it from a contaminated needle. Many of the children have been abandoned by parents unable or unwilling to care for them.
"Of all the places you could put the center, this quiet, isolated spot would be ideal," said Dr. Thaine E. Billingsley, who has practiced medicine here for 30 years and remains the county's only doctor. "People are simply frightened to death. You can smell the fear."
When Kubler-Ross, whose writings on death and dying are considered controversial by some, held a public information meeting to discuss her plan several weeks ago, hundreds of county residents fought their way into the Monterey Methodist Church. Two thousand residents, almost every adult in the county, signed a petition aimed at keeping the center away.
"We've been called hypocrites, cruel monsters without compassion," said Austin L. Shepherd, a retired county official who has spent most of his life in the small town of Monterey. "But everybody knows that's not us. We have no hospital. We have no pharmacy. It's just not fair to take a child who is terminally ill and hold him and kiss him and let him die."
Shepherd said that the county was not eligible to receive state funds to help set up a nursing home because it was too far from a hospital.
"I have received calls from social workers begging me to take these babies," said Kubler-Ross. "There is just nowhere for them to go."
Kubler-Ross said that she is certain that local opposition will erode with time. "Twenty years ago, when I began working with dying patients, I got the same behavior," she said. "People are horrified, and that's understandable. AIDS intrudes on your most private life and destroys it. But we have to help the people who are sufferers."
Kubler-Ross has said that she would have a medical staff to attend to the children, and the hospital at the University of Virginia has agreed to care for any who are too sick to remain at Headwaters.
The Kubler-Ross Center, the stated purpose of which is to help people cope with death and dying, has been based in Headwaters for two years.
The $465,000 home for children with AIDS planned by Kubler-Ross would be a place where six to 15 babies could live as long as they did not need to be hospitalized. Because there are so few places for people with AIDS to live -- as children or adults -- many remain in hospitals even when they are healthy enough to live outside them.
"This seemed like a natural progression for Elisabeth," said Paul McNutt, manager of the Kubler-Ross Center.
"We are isolated, and nobody has anything to fear. People made their minds up before they heard a word about our plans."
He said that Kubler-Ross has decided to delay asking the local planning commission for permission to change the zoning of her land from agricultural to residential until next year. But he added that the project has not been scrapped.
However, the people of Highland County say it makes no sense to bring a fatal disease to this area.
They say they are afraid of an epidemic that they associate with other places and another way of life. Many were shocked when, in response to a question at the meeting, Kubler-Ross refused to promise that she would never expand the scope of the project to include adult homosexuals.
There are only six residents per square mile in the county, and people say that a small county with a fragile economy based on farming and tourism cannot survive a reputation as home to one of the world's foremost AIDS clinics.
Mostly, they wonder why AIDS, a disease that has shattered the good will of many larger communities, has to come to Highland County at all.
"There are some lovely spots in this world," said Mary Swietzer, manager of the Jessico Garment Factory in Monterey. "Tell me, if Highland was famous for AIDS, would you bring your wife to the Maple Festival here?"
A few of the county's most prominent persons have endorsed the goal of bringing a home for children with AIDS to the area.
Billingsley has written several letters to the local newspaper chastising fellow residents for their opposition.
Other people in the area have grown disheartened with the reaction. Since late August, when the plan was first announced, the pages of The Recorder, Highland's weekly newspaper, have been filled with correspondence.
"Do you remember when our grandfathers would get up in the middle of the night to take grandmother to the neighbor's miles away?" Kathy Knight wrote in a letter. "In maybe just a horse and buggy, to help a whole family with smallpox. Where are all of you?"
"This is really a fine place, filled with solid rural residents," said Joseph C. Pritchard, publisher of The Recorder for 30 years before selling it in June. "But people here like what they've got. They have found their little Shangri-La and they don't want to mess it up."