For 22 years, the People with AIDS Coalition of Utah has helped Utahns living with HIV/AIDS to seek services, learn the latest information about the disease and its treatment, and live the healthiest lives possible, all while making friends and creating supportive networks among themselves.
When PWACU began in 1988 under the leadership of founder David Sharpton, it offered fewer programs than it does today, said current Executive Director Toni Johnson, who took the reigns from Dana Hutchinson in late 2001. Under her leadership, the four cornerstones of the organization have continued and grown. They are an annual Living With AIDS Conference, regular seminars on “pertinent issues about HIV,”a community newsletter about HIV/AIDS called The Positive Press and a resource library which today boasts free internet access for the organization’s clients.
“Those four items are our education program,” said Johnson, noting that PWACU’s social and support groups, which she created after becoming executive director, make up a fifth. Unlike many HIV/AIDS-related organizations, PWACU boasts social/support groups for women and for straight people.
“Last year we started a gay men’s support group that meets twice a month,” she added.
The group also refers clients to organizations that can help them meet health and financial needs that PWACU does not provide.
“We do a lot of referrals because no one agency can provide everything,” said Johnson. “We give referrals to things like case management, STD/HIV testing, housing assistance, medical care, mental health providers and utility assistance. We can also help our clients create resumes so they can find employment, and we have a social security payee program.”
“Some of our clients’ case managers feel they need help with their finances, or have been court-ordered to have help,” said Johnson, explaining that a payee takes a person’s social security money and pays his or her bills. “Unfortunately, many people are taken advantage of by their payees, so our organization has become a payee so their bills are paid and they have a place to live.”
But education and support are not the only services PWACU offers. Since HIV/AIDS is not only be a physically and emotionally draining illness, but one that is socially isolating, PWACU has long sponsored a recreation program, an annual barbecue, an annual river trip, and several holiday parties throughout the year.
“Through the recreation program, we solicit donations to plays, baseball games and different social events,” Johnson explained.
PWACU also operates Our Store, a thrift store near the Salt Lake City Main Public Library, and which sells a variety of items such as clothing, furniture, small appliances, books and DVDs.
“I love the store!” said Johnson. “When I started it several years ago, it was a thrift room where people could donate clothing and small appliances for our clients. Now we have the store, and so we have vouchers that we give to our clients through their case managers so they can come shopping.” Clients now also receive vouchers in the birthday cards the organization sends to them.
Johnson said that the main purpose of upgrading the thrift room to an actual store was to make PWACU self-sustaining.
“The first thing we want to do in becoming self-sustaining is to improve our existing programming and expand our programing,” said Johnson. “We’re not there yet, but we hope to be. We are online to make almost two-thirds of PWACU’s budget this year in profits. We still need the poinsettia fundraiser and we still need people to donate, but the store has been an amazing success.”
And PWACU will be launching a number of programs in 2011 that Johnson hopes will be similarly successful. The chief of these is an HIV-prevention program, a grant for which Johnson said she has applied. When asked why PWACU was branching out in this direction, Johnson shared a concern that several members of Utah’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have been voicing throughout the year.
“HIV education is not happening among our youth, and they are the highest in new infection rates,” she said. “Since no one else is doing that [HIV education], even though our programs have been focused on people after they’re infected with HIV, we feel it’s our obligation to bring education to our youth.”
In the meantime, as PWACU works on making itself and its clients self-sustaining, Johnson said they are still in need not only of donations, but volunteers for its store and to assist in running its programs. She stressed that volunteers can be any sexual orientation or gender identity, and need not be HIV positive.
“We have volunteers that are straight as well as gay, positive as well as not positive. Our volunteer base runs the gamut,” she said. “We have people coming in from the Department of Workforce Services, college students coming in for extra credit, retired people who are just looking for a way to spend time.”
The only thing a volunteer needs to have, she said, is compassion and a willingness to listen.
“We don’t have a case manager and none of our volunteers are counselors, but we do play that role quite often, especially when someone is newly diagnosed or they come to us for the first time,” said Johnson. “Being HIV positive myself, I know how scary that is. I remember that fear, and so when people come to us for the first time, our first meeting is mostly just listening to what they need to get off their minds.”
For more information about donating to or volunteering with PWACU visit pwacu.org. For more information about PWACU’s annual holiday poinsettia fundraiser, visit this issue’s Qmmunity section.