A handful of very worried people on a back porch. That’s how, three decades ago, AIDS Help began.
A little Agency on a little island took on a very big thing: the darkness of HIV and AIDS. An entire generation of gifted, young and diverse group of people were slipping away. Sadness at this growing loss of life was a twin to the madness of a government unable or unwilling to take action.
So a small group of locals convened with their own money and precious few other resources. With a Board made up of five individuals, AIDS Help just wanted to somehow help people in their community live to see another day.
The obstacles for that first Board were seemingly insurmountable, with even less access to healthcare than a big-city mobilization via organizations like Manhattan’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and even ACT UP.
Homegrown fundraisers were staged, Christmas mailings sought donations and grants, few and far between, were pursued to assist those 27 persons living with AIDS (PLWA) documented by the Agency. The ill were taken to Department of Health offices, the ER and guided through a confusing maze of SSI, Medicaid and Medicare. These people were cared for via a “mobilized buddy corps” of parents, friends, partners and neighbors.
One year later, in 1987, cash assets totaled slightly over $11,000.00. It was cause for celebration when a local fundraiser honoring Broadway composer Jerry Herman (who resided part-time in Key West and subsequently lost a lover to AIDS) permitted the establishment of an interest-bearing account for emergencies. Emergencies weren’t always about paying for patient care. Cremations and interment also had to be settled. But no one died alone.
From those early days…
The goal was always the same…to help people survive…which turned into enabling people to thrive…turning ignorance, fear and neglect into empowerment, medical regimens and an emphasis of managing wellness, not illness.
AIDS Help rapidly became a statewide, then national, mode of how such an organization can succeed, and is still the only community-based HIV/AIDS service organization in Monroe County.
Over the past 29 years we’ve served nearly 3000 individuals. No one dared say it couldn’t be done and, lo and behold, it got done. AIDS Help is still the only community-based HIV/AIDS service organization in the Florida Keys. Over the past 28 years we’ve served nearly 2700 individuals and currently assist a caseload of about 350 clients living with HIV/AIDS. Each has their own Medical Case Manager; many reside in AHI-owned housing; most lead productive lives wherein HIV/AIDS is an acronym that doesn’t define them. We offer support and counseling groups ranging from mental health and chemical dependency to socialization and negotiating sexual disclosure…reading groups and financial counseling meet…and hundreds of others seeking information have made their way to AIDS Help, yet are thankfully not counted as Agency clients.
Don’t tell us about boundaries, challenges and the odds.
AIDS Help remains 100% open to innovation and thinking ‘outside the box’. We reject self-limiting parameters. Bring our Executive Director, our Board, a colleague an idea and you may be stunned how quickly you hear “Yes”. Our goal is to fix things before they are broken.
The Agency now has multiple targets.
Our clients grow old, a gift never thought possible, but their golden years are tarnished by frailties specific to the very meds that have kept them vital.
Young people coming into sexual activity still require education and reinforcement, and PrEP initiatives like Gilead’s Truvada can complicate or confuse.
The Agency is aggressively moving into STI (sexually-transmitted infection) testing, providing phlebotomy training and certification to staffers.
We’re supplementing client housing with 14 new units, raising that to 110 island-wide; nurses and doctors are on-staff and on-site.
We’ve even reconfigured our office space to enhance confidentiality, ensure privacy and make it more user-friendly to lessen the stigma of a visit to AIDS Help.
We have recently celebrating the 30th anniversary of our inception. Our Founders walk behind us and we will continue emulate their boldness and innovation…and that back porch, thankfully, holds a lot more people now.
For this, we thank you.