“When we started, our focus was to make sure no one faced AIDS alone and that’s never changed,” said Action AIDS executive director Kevin Burns.
When Action AIDS opened its doors in 1986, however, the epidemic looked much different than it does today, Burns noted.
“In the early days we were helping people die with dignity,” he said. “We would make sure people had access to care, to services as they prepared to die. But, thankfully, a lot has changed, so we’re now helping people to live with the HIV disease.”
Action AIDS has continued to focus on issues of access but, as the disease evolved, those efforts have transitioned to areas like housing and quality-of-life issues.
“There are treatments out there right now that can make HIV a chronic illness as opposed to a terminal illness, but access hasn’t changed,” Burns said. “We’re still fighting every day for more access and to remove the barriers people with HIV face.”
The tenets the organization follows today were instilled by some of its earliest organizers, Burns said.
On Oct. 22, Action AIDS will commemorate its anniversary with a gala — from 7-11 p.m. at Arts Ball Room, 1324 Locust St. — during which Friend for Life awards will be presented to founding director Jim Littrell, founding board president Bob Schoenberg and the organization’s first employee, Anna Forbes.
“Those three folks all volunteered their time and their expertise to help get the organization off the ground and running and all continue to be very involved in the LGBT community and with HIV/AIDS issues,” Burns said. “Bob and Anna are social workers and are really responsible for building the social-work ethic and morals into the organization, and Jim, as an Episcopal priest, brought a perspective of social justice and of being responsive to the community.”
The organization has its roots in the gay community, Burns said, but over the years has continued to be non-population-specific — serving those who are gay, straight, male, female, black, white, elderly and children.
In the beginning, the organization’s work was largely fueled by a group of 84 men and women who got behind the fledgling organization to support loved ones struggling with the disease.
That initial effort instilled a strong spirit of volunteerism that has persisted, as many of Action AIDS’ clients have gone on to volunteer for the agency, and it continues to operate one of the oldest Volunteer Buddy programs in the country.
Burns initially came to the organization as a volunteer and in 1988 was hired as a case manager, taking over as director six years ago.
In the early days, staff and volunteers were largely drawn to the organization because of a personal connection to the epidemic, Burns noted, a trend that has changed in recent years.
“We still see some people coming to us because they’ve been personally affected, but we have seen a lot who’ve never known anyone with HIV/AIDS but who are interested in volunteering or working here because they realize that this is an important cause. And I think they realize the model of care that we have is really on the cutting edge,” Burns said. “I initially only planned to stay a few years but I quickly realized that the model we were providing was not something that I, as a social worker, was going to get anywhere else. We now have a lot of young social-work interns and people right out of school who want to be involved in the issues of access to healthcare, social justice and serving marginalized communities — those are values that are central to the field of social work and things that our organization also values.”
Those principles have served as the building blocks for some of the agency’s most significant accomplishments in the past 25 years — such as the launch of Case Nueva Vida, its housing facility for those with HIV/AIDS, and its partnership with 37 local healthcare partners where it provides HIV/AIDS case management.
Just this month, Action AIDS was awarded an $80,000 Health Care Planning Grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration under the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
The grant will allow the organization to undertake a yearlong planning process to examine the current state of access to healthcare for those with HIV/AIDS in the city — and subsequently work to close those gaps.
“We’re going to work with the city, with AACO [AIDS Activities Coordinating Office] and primary-care providers to identify where in the city there is a real lack of access to primary medical care because of not having health centers that focus on HIV as a specialty,” Burns said. “And the result of that process hopefully will be for us applying for additional funding to partner with an existing primary-care center to provide better access for people with HIV or to look at the feasibility of our opening our own primary healthcare facility that would eventually become a Federally Qualified Health Center. So this is a brand-new area for us and we want this process to be open and transparent and we’re really excited to be able to engage people from across the city in this opportunity.”
The HHS grant will be one of several topics of discussion at the upcoming anniversary gala, as Action AIDS’ supporters come together to celebrate both the past and the future.
“We wanted to hold an event that looks back at our history with pride and looks at how we were formed out of the gay community and have grown from there and are now looking ahead to where we are headed.”
Tickets to the event are $150.
For more information, visit actionaids.org/events/25th-anniversary-gala. Jen Colletta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.