Center City: Philadelphia FIGHT Provides Internet Services to HIV/AIDS Community
Allison Wolf always had a corporate job. Until 10 years ago, when she came to work for Philadelphia FIGHT’s Critical Path Project.
“I was lucky enough to be offered the job here at Philadelphia FIGHT because I felt like I wanted to give back to my community,” she said.
The Critical Path Project is one of the many services Philadelphia FIGHT provides to the HIV/AIDS community in the city. For 15 years, the Critical Path Project has provided free Internet access, free e-mail accounts, website hosting for nonprofit and community groups and web-based mailing lists for affinity groups.
Director of Education at Philadelphia FIGHT and Head of the Critical Path Project Juliet Fink called the project “Philadelphia FIGHT’s technology arm.”
“We feel really strongly that access to the Internet is a critical piece of solving the AIDS epidemic, and it’s a critical piece to making sure that those who are most likely to be affected by HIV and AIDS have the resources to help educate themselves and to help communicate with others about how to both prevent HIV and AIDS and to live with the disease,” Fink said.
Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a civil and gay rights and HIV activist who died from HIV complications in 2000, founded the project. Kuromiya used a bulletin board system to pass critical treatment information along to people in the 1980s, when most knew little about the AIDS epidemic.
Fink said Kuromiya developed the first website centered around HIV/AIDS in the mid-1990s.
“At the time when he created the website, it was the place to go to get the latest treatment information,” she said.
The Critical Path Project is largely funded by federal, state and local grants. A lot of the funding comes from the Ryan White Care Act, a separate funding program dedicated to HIV/AIDS patients.
The federal stimulus act created by President Barack Obama funded two grants that will be put into place in the next two years – one to help develop public computing centers in 77 different locations around the Philadelphia and another for sustainable broadband adoption.
With the help of these grants, Fink said the project will “be able to get more people online, get more people to be able to apply for benefits, to be able to do jobs and to create and do the business that they need to be able to do that’s so essential every day.”
Due to a 2008 funding cut, the Critical Path Project dropped its free dial-up Internet access offer. Despite the drawback, Fink said the project continues to maintain websites for many nonprofit groups in the Philadelphia region and more than 100 lists for affinity groups around the world, as well as many groups that address digital justice issues.
The Critical Path Project aims to bridge the digital divide and bring digital justice to groups like Philadelphia’s HIV/AIDS population.
“HIV is really a disease of poverty, and those who are most impacted by HIV are those who are least likely to also have access to the Internet,” Fink said.
In 2008, the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office Annual Surveillance Report reported 18,640 cases of people living with HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia. This number does not include those who are unaware they are HIV positive. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports 21 percent living with HIV are unaware.
She said the population the Critical Path Project serves is largely made up of low-income minorities, many who are homeless or have histories of mental illness or incarceration. These populations, she said, are likely to be on the other side of the digital divide.
“There’s a really strong correlation between the folks that we serve and those who might not have access,” Fink said.
When Wolf began her job at Philadelphia FIGHT 10 years ago, the organization did not have an on-site network administrator. Now,
Wolf oversees the network the Critical Path Project operates on, managing all the websites and e-mail accounts and making sure each group’s site is always up and running.
“That is the most fulfilling part,” Wolf said. “I make sure that the information of the other agencies, who are using our service, is up constantly.”
“Whether you’re HIV positive, you have cancer or you have any disease, the more you know about your disease and the more that you can talk to your doctors and find resources, the better off you’ll be,” Wolf added.
Bert Pannapacker used to be a business owner, but everything changed in August 1999, when he was diagnosed with AIDS. Pannapacker went to Kuromiya, his neighbor at the time, for help. He then went to Philadelphia FIGHT’s Lax Center, where he could be treated for free.
“I was a client since November 1998, and I still am,” Pannapacker said. “I still see my healthcare provider here.”
In 2004, Pannapacker began work as a part-time filing clerk for Philadelphia FIGHT’s AIDS Library. At the time, he had never touched a computer. Pannapacker took the computer classes offered in the AIDS Library to learn the basics. Today, he works as an administrative assistant and counselor at Philadelphia FIGHT. He uses a computer every day.
“Nobody knows everything about HIV,” said Pannapacker. “I try very hard to know as much as I can because I’m dealing with people who may have no information at all about HIV when they’re diagnosed.”
The Critical Path Project makes it possible for people with HIV/AIDS to learn as much as they can.
“They can learn more about their disease, and they can learn more about how to advocate,” Wolf said. “In that way, we’re helping so many people.”
In the future, the Critical Path Project is going to evolve in many ways, said Wolf.
“It’s a journey I’m looking forward to taking with it,” she said.