For ActionAIDS, Compassionate Relationships Are the Cure
ActionAIDS was founded in 1986 on a simple principle: “No one should face AIDS alone.” It was a reflection of a time when people were abandoned after contracting the virus and left with little support. “Back then there was nothing,” Michael Byrne, the group’s director of development, says. “People were shunned—even by their families. Funeral homes wouldn’t accept bodies.”
As Byrne tells it, the original 81 ActionAIDS volunteers banded together to form a buddy program, offering companionship to anyone who might need it. Each volunteer had loved someone who had been affected by the virus; all were compelled by compassion.
“Ten years ago, the government stopped funding buddy programs,” he says. “But that will never end here.”
Now ActionAIDS has 100 full-time staff members and 400 volunteers, and served 4,000 clients in 2014 alone. It has five offices around Philadelphia, including a testing center, and a transitional housing facility called Casa Nueva Vida for homeless men, women, and families in North Philadelphia—the epicenter of the city’s epidemic.
Support is crucial in helping underserved populations such as the homeless. Getting treatment and medication—and staying on it—can be like scaling Mount Everest if you don’t have a stable residence. “Even getting food—it can be really rough for these people,” Byrne says. The staff works to find clients permanent housing and also offers employment-skills training, drug and alcohol abuse counseling, and mental health services.
The challenge of maintaining treatment applies equally to people in prison. In Pennsylvania, all prisoners are tested for HIV when they are incarcerated. Then what? ActionAIDS has stepped in and now assigns diagnosed prisoners to case managers, who help them during their sentence and after their release. “Someone beyond a parole officer is looking out for their entire well-being,” says Byrne, “assisting with housing or finding a job.”
The staff and volunteers at ActionAIDS have made a huge impact in the AIDS community and have a lot to be proud of. This includes launching the first Dining Out For Life. Twenty-five years ago, a volunteer dreamed up the Philadelphia mainstay, which now takes place across the United States and in Canada. “She was part of the restaurant community, and so many of them were losing their work families,” says Byrne. “People wanted to do something that would make a difference.” In 1991, twenty local restaurants donated one-third of their proceeds, totaling about $18,000, to help people with HIV/AIDS. Last year, 60 cities participated, donating more than $4 million.
Partnerships have also been a proven success for ActionAIDS. Subaru of America joined Dining Out For Life as a host sponsor eight years ago, raising more than $1.5 million in the Delaware Valley alone. "They [Subaru] truly are friends for life and have made a very real difference in the lives of thousands of men, women, and children we serve,” says Byrne.
Although the organization’s services have expanded to include fund-raising, medical case management, HIV/AIDS prevention, housing assistance, education, support groups, and more, emphasizing one-on-one relationships is still a key factor in the success of ActionAIDS. “It’s the human piece that makes the difference,” says Byrne.