As AIDS Foundation Houston turns 30, two of its key players reflect on the organization’s past, present, and future
by Nancy Ford
Photos by Dalton DeHart
It all started with the death of one gay man in New York City in 1981. The medical community named the mysterious immune-system-attacking disease GRID, a gay cancer. Five men in Los Angeles soon experienced similar symptoms. By year’s end, they and 232 more gay men had died.
By 1982, GRID became AIDS, and the death toll climbed to 853 in the United States. Houston was similarly impacted as scores of local gay men fell ill with pneumonia, Kaposi’s sarcoma, blindness, and dementia. Houston’s gay community was under siege, on all fronts.
Politically speaking, President Ronald Reagan had yet to address the crisis. Pulling itself up by its bootstraps, Houston’s gay community responded to the needs of its own citizens with the founding of Montrose Clinic, The Assistance Fund, Montrose Counseling Center, PWA Coalition, Houston Buyer’s Club, and other AIDS service organizations. Their programs were funded by individuals and, much later, by socially progressive corporate donors. Survivors and supporters produced fundraising drag shows in bars via the charitable royalty courts systems for ill gay men who had nowhere else to turn for their very survival. Gay Men’s Chorus of Houston, Houston Pride Band, and other arts groups contributed proceeds from their concerts, even as their own memberships were diminished by the unrelenting AIDS deaths. Formal dinners, black-tie galas, and backyard barbeques morphed into Houston Black Tie Dinner and Bunnies on the Bayou.
More than 30 years later, these groups, and many others like them, continue to respond to the needs of Houston’s LGBT community when other funding sources do not.
Emerging at the very forefront of the fight against AIDS in Texas was AIDS Foundation Houston. Now in its 30th anniversary year, AFH continues to, as its mission states, “create positive social impact through the innovative management of HIV/AIDS and other chronic diseases.”
Formerly an executive with Houston Area Women’s Center, Kelly Young took the helm as AFH’s chief executive officer earlier this year. She regards the fight against HIV/AIDS as “a model for community mobilization.
“Taking something that literally had the potential of wiping out whole communities and making it a number-one health concern, and then pushing the medical side of it to really come up with some answers? That’s astounding.”
“I meet people all the time who tell me how they were involved with AFH over the years,” Young continues. “It’s amazing how many people have connected to this organization.”
Recently, one person talked to Young about how they had joined basically when the hospitals were segregating AIDS
“They were in their own units and nobody would go in. Nobody would visit with them. [This individual] had been with a volunteer corps of women who held patients’ hands and talked to them.
“That astounding amount of compassion and willingness to kind of buck the system and how people were thinking—that to me feels like it’s at the core of why AFH was established—that sense of humanity and compassion.”
Marc Cohen began volunteering with AFH in April of 1995 and became a staff member in July ’97. The disease looked much different at that time than it does now.
“Back in the early ’90s, the medications were limited,” Cohen, program manager for AFH’s many volunteers, recalls. “We did not have the level of knowledge in how to treat HIV—not to the extent we have currently. It was a time in the pandemic when individuals were dying. One of the areas we dealt with here at AFH, as well as service providers throughout Houston, was the death and dying component of HIV, as well as the social isolation part that came with HIV. I’m a firm believer that people become frightened over things they have limited or no information about.”
Cohen recognizes that much progress has been made in terms of how HIV is treated medically. “We’re moving [HIV] into a chronic illness more than a terminal illness. We see different subpopulations that are being identified as having individuals who are positive. They were probably there in the early ’90s as well, but we just didn’t realize it.”
Thirty years into the epidemic, “The Face of AIDS” has changed dramatically.
Currently, the typical face of AIDS in Houston, Young says, is women of color, or men of color who have sex with men who are teetering on poverty. “They do not have access to health care or insurance. You’re seeing populations that have higher levels of health disparities across the board, who are HIV positive or who are at higher risk of being HIV positive because they don’t have access to information,” Young explains.
At one time, Cohen says, the face of AIDS looked a lot like his own face. “They were white, they were male, they were gay, they were educated, and they were sick,” he explains. “Now, the face of AIDS is much more broad-spectrum—what it looks like and the challenges they are facing over and above their HIV status.”
Cohen learned in 1987 that he, himself, is HIV-positive. “I used to go out and talk to groups of young gay men. The prevention messages really have not changed throughout the years. We knew back in the early to mid-’90s how to prevent transmission, and that has not waivered that much. It’s still the same practices.”
The most recent reported figures from the CDC indicate that gay men, or men who have sex with men, comprise the majority of new HIV infections (61 percent). Speaking as an HIV-positive gay man himself, Cohen says he finds this statistic particularly frustrating.
After more than thirty years in a community that “invented” safer sex, why aren’t gay men, or men who have sex with men, getting the message? “It just blows me away,” he says, that some individuals not only choose to not practice safer sex, but others actively choose to become infected via “bug-chasing” or “gift-giving.”
“The other part of it is, medical advances have been phenomenal. They have lengthened the lives of many people, which is a wonderful thing,” Cohen continues. “But on the other side of that double-edged sword, I think there’s a certain segment of the population that does not see that risk factor as great as it is, because they feel they can be medically treated.”
AFH addresses this unrelenting challenge via its prevention programs. CEO Kelly Young is especially proud of Wall Talk, a program that addresses HIV among prison populations.
“The prison population is a population that most people don’t want to talk about,” Young says. “But they are a part of our community, so we need to make sure they’re as healthy as everybody else and they have access like everybody else.”
Young is equally enthusiastic about Hip Hop for HIV, AFH’s youth prevention program. The annual event hosts a live performance by a leading Hip Hop artist, and provides onsite HIV testing to participants. “We’ve seen probably 6,000 people get tested every year since we started that program,” she adds. “That’s a great prevention. People come for lots of different reasons, but they still get tested and make sure they know their status.”
Another main component of AFH’s service to Houston’s HIV/AIDS community is providing housing assistance for some of its clients, via its seven housing programs.
“Any given year, we have about 500 beds,” Young says. Sometimes beds take the form of cots and sleeping bags for young HIV-positive clients and their
Cohen is also the director of AFH’s Camp Hope. Established in 1997, Camp Hope is a recreational and therapeutic summer camp program for children who are HIV-positive between the ages of seven and fifteen. Campers come from not only the Houston area, but also throughout Texas, as well as from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Shreveport, Louisiana, and Little Rock, Arkansas.
“In addition to that, through the relationship we have with Baylor College of Medicine, we have been able to implement our camp model into six sub-Saharan African countries,” Cohen says proudly. “Those programs are self-sufficient at this point.”
Approximately 120–130 kids attended the domestic camp, Cohen says. “With the advent of HIV anti-retro therapies, we are seeing fewer and fewer children being born positive, so we have more children aging out of camp than we have kids aging into camp.”
Just as the face of AFH’s typical client has changed, so has the face of its typical volunteer. “When I started at AFH in 1995, a lot of our volunteer base was comprised of individuals who were, in fact, infected, who were on disability, and who had a lot of time on their hands and wanted to give back,” Cohen recalls. “Today, our volunteer pool is predominately comprised of career individuals and individuals who are part of the working community. Consequently, their availability to give back is subject to their actual work and professional obligations.”
An ideal volunteer, Cohen says, is someone “who truly has a compassionate spirit—an individual who realizes they can make a difference in the life of an individual, and has the drive to give to achieve that goal of making someone’s life a little easier than what it is currently.”
Specifically, AFH seeks volunteers who can provide life-skill training—“everything from computer skills to developing a job résumé, budgeting their finances, or helping them understand the need to be medically compliant,” Cohen says. “Our thought process is to get our clients to a point of self-sufficiency so they can do for themselves—they feel good enough, they get the gratification from doing for themselves rather than having someone else do for them.”
Traditionally, volunteers turn out in droves for one of AFH’s primary and most beloved fundraisers throughout most of its 30-year history: its annual AIDS Walk Houston.
“I’d really, really love to see everyone turn out for the walk this year,” Young says. “Last year, it was raining, and we still had, like, 6,000 people. I think that the walk really does show people that this issue is not being marginalized here in Houston, in that we recognize that there’s still work to do. And I want people to continue to invest in it. We’re on the verge [of a cure], so we need continued support. Walk me out of business!”
Simultaneously, Young insists that it’s not just about the money. “But more important is seeing all those people out in the street saying ‘Nope, we’re not done yet. Not ’til it’s over. Not ’til it’s really, really gone. And not ’til this community is at zero.’”
Interrupting that flow of altruism and community welfare, on June 29, local news outlets reported that a former AFH employee was indicted and arrested for theft. Lori Dee Snyder, 50, was indicted on a felony theft charge in Harris County on charges of stealing between $100,000 and $200,000 from February 2007 through March 2010, while serving as the chief financial officer for the AIDS Foundation.
Upon hearing of the indictment, Dianne Lewder, AFH’s board of directors chair, stated: “The action to indict by the district attorney helps us to put closure to an unnerving situation. We are looking forward to meeting our mission to support individuals affected by HIV/AIDS and preventing new cases.”
Young says that case was part of the reason she accepted the position of leadership at AFH. “I didn’t want one person’s actions to determine the course and the actions of all AFH had done, and their tremendous work,” she explains.
“There have been some people who have been incredibly gracious and supportive. I think other people struggle with what that means, and how well we manage our organization.
“What I know, and what I can speak to as the new CEO, is that I feel absolutely comfortable and proud of where the organization is right now,” Young says. “The stewardship issue is not at question. I feel very comfortable about how we are managing donors’ money.
“Unfortunately, it’s human behavior for some people,” Young concludes about the matter. “You’re not exempt from it just because you’re a nonprofit. [Snyder] will be a hiccup in the history of AFH. What we are accomplishing with individuals is what’s lasting. That’s what I want people to concentrate on.”
Compared to those who have been fighting HIV/AIDS since its emergence, Young says she feels “like a bit of a newbie.” Predicting what’s going to happen in the HIV/AIDS community in the future—even over the next five years—is “very precarious,” she says. “You don’t really know what’s going to happen. I really feel like, with all the information I’ve been getting, we can have this be over. That’s astounding to me. I wake up every day thinking, ‘Okay, how do I do that?’ I would love to see this building close. There’s no reason why that can’t happen and this can’t be a museum. I don’t know why we’d even need a museum. Let’s just have a really big party.”
As AFH turns 30 years old, Young concludes she is “in awe, and a little bit humbled” to speak on behalf of those people who have worked with and for the organization, who “have really done the majority of the work.
“People who came before me were in the trenches of something that was just really horrific. I don’t know how you watch all your friends get sick and know that the people you love could die.
“I’m a beneficiary of all that work. At the same time, the tenacity and the strength of their saying, ‘No, HIV is not going to wipe us out. This is not how it’s going to go down. . . .’ It’s astounding, and something I have true admiration for.”
World AIDS Day was founded in 1987 as a way to internationally commemorate the thousands of lives lost to the disease since the discovery of the deadly virus more than 30 years ago. Since then, individual communities, including Houston, set aside this day with a slate of events designed to remember that, despite much progress in the fight against HIV, much remains to be done to obliterate it altogether.
A Paper Chain of Memories
The Montrose Center (formerly Montrose Counseling Center) once again displays its World AIDS Day Paper Chain of Remembrance in its lobby throughout December. The simple yet sincere, folk-artsy paper chain represents those lost to HIV/AIDS. “We welcome the community to create a link to add to our chain. Messages of hope, healing, love, and remembrance are welcome,” says community project specialist Sally Huffer. 401 Branard St. • montrosecounseling
center.org • 713/529-0037.
The Center Discusses Treatment on World AIDS Day
As an “official hub” of the XIX International AIDS Conference that was held in Washington DC this year, Montrose Counseling Center ensures that the Gulf Coast region is part of the global discussion among key stakeholders, MCC’s Sally Huffer explains.
“The biennial International AIDS Conference is the premier gathering for those working in the field of HIV, as well as policymakers, people living with HIV, and others committed to ending the epidemic,” she says. “Unfortunately, immigration, financial, and/or time constraints prevented many people from being able to attend the conference in person.”
The public is invited to attend any or all of three free presentations, beginning on World AIDS Day, at Montrose Counseling Center. The initial session addresses “Treatment as Prevention: Is It Time for Action?” focusing on antiretroviral therapy (ART) as a prevention intervention. December 1, 10 a.m. Registration: montrosecounselingcenter.org/forms/?q=node/28/.
World AIDS Day Candlelight Observance
Each year on World AIDS Day, a cadre of local health and social organizations join together to commemorate those lost to HIV/AIDS with a candlelight observance in downtown Houston. December 1, Tranquility Park, 400 Rusk Street.
• 5pm Music by Gay Men’s Chorus of Houston and Bayou City Women’s Chorus
• 5:30 Introduction by Master of Ceremonies, Blake Hayes, The Mix 96.5
• 5:35 Invocation by Rev. Adam Robinson, First Unitarian Universalist Church
• 5:45 Stephen Williams, Houston Department of Health and Human Services
• 5:50 Pete Rodriguez, Harris County Hospital District, Thomas Street Clinic
• 6pm Remarks by Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker
• 6:10 Testimonials from person living with HIV/AIDS
• 6:40 Lighting of the candles by Sally Huffer, Montrose Counseling Center
• 6:45 Poetry reading by Aaron Coleman
• 6:55 Silent Observance
• 7pm Closing remarks by Blake Hayes
Chevron Presents AIDS Foundation Houston’s 15th Annual World AIDS Day Luncheon
Thirty-one years after HIV/AIDS entered the world stage, AIDS Foundation Houston’s 15th Annual World AIDS Day Luncheon, is presented by Chevron. Honorary luncheon co-chairs are Jessica Rossman and Grodon Bethune; honorary chair is Edward Sanchez.
The luncheon also honors Katine & Nechman LLP with the Shelby Hodge Vision Award for their compassion and support of those affected by or living with HIV/AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic. “They have done so much,” Kelly Young, chief executive officer for AIDS Foundation Houston, says. “Mitchell Katine had actually won our Shelby Hodge award before, for his specific work, but we really wanted to recognize their law firm, particularly because they have done so many things for clients who would not have gotten services. They have been an amazing component of AFH for years.”
With tickets starting at $250 for individuals and $3,000 for tables, the annual luncheon benefits programs of AIDS Foundation Houston.
December 3, with champagne reception beginning at 11 a.m. Hilton Americas Houston Grand Ballroom, 1600 Lamar St. • AIDShelp.org/WorldAIDSDay2011 • 713/623-6796.
The ‘Big 108’: Better Health Through Yoga
Bering Omega Community Services presents its 4th Annual Yogathon throughout November, in honor of World AIDS Day. As in previous years, it will be held at various locations, on different dates throughout the month. The project focuses on the number “108” which represents “wholeness of existence” in the Vedic culture. Students and studios are encouraged to raise $108 for Bering’s programs. “We encourage creativity!” organizers say. Beringomega.org.
HIV Testing: A Good Idea on World AIDS Day, and Every Day
The following locations also offer HIV testing not only to commemorate World AIDS Day, but every day.
• Free HIV testing, with no gold card or donation required or requested. Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–1 p.m. HCHD Thomas Street Clinic, 2015 Thomas St. • 713/873-4157 • 713/873-4026.
• Monday–Friday. HACS, 2150 W. 18th St. • 713/426-0027.
• Each third Thursday, 1 p.m. Houston GLBT Community Center, 1900 Kane St. • houstonglbtcommunitycenter.org • 713/524-3818.
Legacy Community Health Services provides free rapid HIV testing with results in 20 minutes at he following locations on a weekly basis: MONDAYS: Legacy Lyons Avenue Clinic, 9am–4pm; EJ’s, 9pm–12am; George Sports Bar, 6–9pm. TUESDAYS: Legacy Lyons Avenue Clinic, 9am–3pm; 611 Hyde Park Pub, 6–9pm; TC’s Showbar, 8–11pm; Mid Towne Spa, 5-9pm. WEDNESDAYS: Legacy Lyons Avenue Clinic, 9am–4pm; Crystal Night Club, 10pm–2am; Club Houston, 6–10pm; Walgreens–Montrose, 4–8pm; THURSDAYS: Legacy Lyons Avenue Clinic, 9am–3pm; Ripcord, 8–11pm; Mid Towne Spa, 5-9pm; Brazos River Bottom, 8–11pm; Guava Lamp, 5–8pm; FRIDAYS: Club Houston, 1–4pm; Tony’s Corner Pocket, 5–9pm. Legacycommunityhealth.org • 713/830-3000.
• Planned Parenthood offers free anonymous or confidential testing at clinic locations throughout the area. To speak with an HIV counselor, call 1/800-230-PLAN. Dickinson: 281/337-7725. Fannin: 713/831-6543. FM1960: 281/587-8081. Greenspoint: 281/445-4553. Huntsville: 936/295-6396. Lufkin: 936/634-8446, ext. 223. Rosenberg: 281/342-3950. Stafford: 281/494-9848. Plannedparenthood.org/gulf-coast.
For more information about AIDS Foundation Houston and its programs, log on to aidshelphouston.org.