In 1986, the early days of the AIDS pandemic, a group of dedicated volunteers came together with the idea of helping those with HIV or AIDS.
That idea evolved into a mission “that no one should face AIDS alone.” From there, ActionAIDS was born. Based out of Philadelphia, ActionAIDS has grown tremendously since then from a group of 84 volunteers helping just over 100 people in its first year, to a full scale organization that includes 91 staff members and upwards of 350 volunteers helping over 5000 clients each year.
ActionAIDS offers a wide array of services but none larger than Medical Case Management which helps clients deal with the process of getting proper medical care. “It (case management) helps link HIV positive individuals to medical care,” said Ralph Chartier, assistant director of client services. “Case managers work with clients to make sure that they go on medication if they’re on medication, that they see their doctor regularly and help them with medical insurance and transportation.”
As of June 30, case management has accounted for 59 percent of ActionAIDS spending this year and within it are four other programs.
According to ActionAIDS website, the family program helps HIV and AIDS families with the tasks of daily living, shopping, housekeeping, nutrition counseling, meal preparation, medication management, child care, transportation and companionship.
Also included within the family program is the perinatal program, which helps pregnant women with HIV or AIDS not only to live healthier, but also to deliver HIV negative babies.
The Care Outreach Program is simply meant to help lost clients reconnect with case managers so that they receive the services they need.
Positive Action employment services allows people with HIV or AIDS to re-enter the workforce through one-on-one counseling, skills training, job referrals, resume writing and individual action plans.
The Prison Linkage Program helps HIV or AIDS positive individuals that are in prison. According to their website, “Case managers work one-on-one with clients during their incarceration and for several months upon their release.” The main function of this is to insure that the client is able
to access the proper medical care from prison.
But Case Management is just one facet of ActionAIDS. The Philadelphia Department of Health estimates that there are 30,000 people in the greater Philadelphia area living with HIV or AIDS and that approximately 25 percent of people with HIV don’t know it.
To that end ActionAIDS places a great deal of emphasis on prevention, testing and education. They provide free rapid tests that yield results in just 20 minutes.
Their prevention services also include workshops meant to educate people on the transmission of HIV and ways to prevent contraction. “Studies have shown that the earlier people know their status and get into treatments, the better the long term health outcomes are of treating the disease,” said Kevin Burns, executive director of ActionAIDS. “So we’re becoming more focused on prevention, education and getting people tested so they know their status so they can have better outcomes to treatment for HIV.”
In addition to ActionAIDS main office located at 1216 Arch St., they also have a West Philadelphia location, as well as a secondary location in Center City and one in North Philadelphia, both of which provide testing.
The North Philadelphia location also plays a huge part in the housing program. “Housing continues to be a huge need for people with AIDS,” Burns said. “Most of our clients are on the borderline of losing their housing, about 99 percent of them live below the poverty level which makes finding safe affordable housing next to impossible in Philadelphia.”
As a result of this, ActionAIDS has housing counseling to help individuals and families with HIV or AIDS find housing through education and access to safe and affordable housing.
In some cases they can even provide housing for individuals or families. In addition to testing and some other basic services, the North Philadelphia location at 2641 N. Sixth St. also has some housing.
The facility, called Casa Nueva Vida, which in Spanish means “house of new life,” is a 12-apartment facility which provides temporary housing for individuals or families with HIV or AIDS so that they can bridge the gap to finding their own independent housing.
One of the big keys for ActionAIDS to function so strongly is the effort of volunteers. “The agency could not function without volunteers,” said Jay Johnson, volunteer coordinator for ActionAIDS.
Some of the basic functions of the volunteers include working special events, fundraising, clerical office assistance and working the immediate seating program which provides clients with free access to sporting and entertainment events.
The most significant volunteer function though is the Buddy program. “A volunteer is matched with a client with HIV or AIDS and provides them with emotional support,” Johnson said. “That could mean just spending time with them, going to the movies, sitting at their house, going to a park or coffee shop and also making telephone contact two or three times a week.”
Johnson is a fairly unique figure in all of this. In addition to being a longtime volunteer turned employee, he has been living with HIV for the past 20 years which has given him a lot of perspective on the organization.
“Because of the fact that I’m living with this [HIV], I experience some of the feelings and emotions that our clients deal with on a daily basis,” Johnson said. “When I’m orientating new volunteers, I can give them stories or opinions that I’ve actually lived.”
Johnson also indicated that he has been living pretty healthy and that his HIV status has been undetectable for the past seven years, thus indicating the advances in treatment that have taken HIV from being a certain death sentence to an affliction that can be overcome.
“In the beginning we were helping people to die with dignity, there weren’t a lot of treatments and there’s still no cure for HIV,” Burns said. “Thanks to the advancement in treatment of HIV, we’re really about helping people to live with HIV.”