Action Wellness gives, receives awards for World AIDS Day

Action Wellness, a nonprofit that helps those in the Greater Philadelphia area living with chronic diseases, held its 28th-annual Friends for Life Awards event Wednesday night to celebrate community members who have made a difference in the lives of people living with HIV. 

The ceremony, which commemorated World AIDS Day, took place at Yards Brewing Company on 5th and Spring Garden streets. The Friends for Life Award, Action Wellness’ highest honor, intends to embody the organization’s mission that “No one should face HIV or chronic illness alone.” This year’s recipients were NBC10’s Vai Sikaehma; Tom Kehoe, owner of Yards Brewing Company; and Terry Burch McNally, who owned the now-shuttered staple Fairmount bar London Grill. 

“All three of them have been extremely generous with their time and with their talent and their fortune,” said Kevin Burns, Action Wellness executive director. “Hopefully highlighting them will hope to motivate people to maybe give back by volunteering.”

Burch McNally has been instrumental in supporting Dining Out for Life, Action Wellness’ signature annual event in which some Philly restaurants donate one-third of food sales on a designated day in April to fighting HIV/AIDS, Burns said. The London Grill was one of the longest-participating food institutions in the fundraiser, which began in the early ’90s. 

Yards has similarly supported Action Wellness over the years through the creation of Action IPA, a hoppy brew from which a dollar is donated to the nonprofit for every pint sold during April, Burns told PGN. He added that Sikaehma is a “fixture in the community” who “goes above and beyond to” motivate others to give back to folks in need. 

In addition to doling out the three Friends for Life Awards, Action Wellness will receive its own honor Dec. 6 from the University of Pennsylvania’s Community Advisory Board of the Center for AIDS Research. The Pioneer Award, part of the Red Ribbon Awards Ceremony held annually in commemoration of World AIDS Day, recognizes Action Wellness for its HIV activism and education work. 

Burns, who has worked with Action Wellness — which changed its operating name from ActionAIDS in 2016 — for 30 years, said the award is a tribute to the nonprofit’s past. He views it as a way to remember community members who have died from AIDS, including former volunteers and board of directors members.

“When we as an organization are at a crossroads I think to myself, ‘What would they think about this particular decision and what would they say and what would they do?’” he added. “Getting this award feels good because it feels like we are very much in touch with our history as an organization and really try to listen to those voices of people who were taken from us too soon in terms of the decisions that we make as an organization.”

Over the last year, Action Wellness has buckled down on addressing racism and white privilege, providing relevant staff training, Burns told PGN. The Pioneer Award feels like an acknowledgment of these efforts as the nonprofit aims to create a safe space for people regardless of race, sexual orientation, sex or gender identity, he added. 

As the organization’s team enters 2020 with 114 fulltime staff members — the most it has ever had — some new projects are on the horizon. 

Action Wellness recently received a three-year Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant from the City of Philadelphia to fund an initiative to help people with addiction who have been incarcerated in the city’s jails with reentry following release. 

The nonprofit finished hiring staff for the project last week. The new team will work with formerly incarcerated folks with addiction as they transition back into their communities, help them access medically-assisted addiction treatment and health care services, and connect them with other social services. 

“The clients we’ll be working with may or may not be also HIV-positive, which is … a good match with the expansion that we’ve done to work with people with other chronic illnesses and conditions,” Burns said. “We’re really excited about it.”

Action Wellness plans to have the program fully-operational in January.