San Luis Obispo
The AIDS Support Network (ASN) of San Luis Obispo started in 1984 as an all-volunteer program with no funding.
"It began when a person with AIDS went to the local hospital and was denied service because no one knew what to do," said Executive Director Edie Kahn. "They sent him to San Francisco, where he died five days later. A group of citizens got together and said, 'We can't let this happen again.'"
Over the years the agency has grown. When Ryan White funds became available, the agency added professional staff and expanded its programs. Today it is also home to the San Luis Obispo Hep C Project, in recognition of the fact that many of their clients with HIV also have issues with Hep C.
"We do business differently than many other ASOs," Edie said. "Most other agencies have case managers who are assigned certain clients and take care of all their needs. Here we specialize in areas of expertise, instead of expecting one person to know everything. So we have a HIV Health Counselor who sees all of our clients and connects them with medical resources. We also have a Benefits Counselor and a Housing Services Coordinator. We have clients who may never see our Housing Services Coordinator, for example, but who have a whole tangle of benefits issues. So they deal intensely with the Benefits Coordinator. We started that way when we had far fewer clients, and found it really works for us. We're still not the largest ASO in the country. Eventually, everyone on the staff gets to know all of our clients."
ASN also offers its clients a food pantry, which is their most heavily-used service.
"We don't limit use of our food pantry," Edie says. "People come in as they need to. The only restriction is based on what's available-if we only have three cans of tuna fish left, for example, you're probably only going to get one. The food pantry helps us keep in touch with our clients. As clients come in, our front desk volunteers and staff greet them and check on how they're doing. They may be struggling with something they don't realize we can help them with. It gives us the chance to nip problems in the bud."
ASN volunteers also help the agency's clients with practical needs, like rides to the doctor, housekeeping, meal preparation-even home repairs and dog-walking, on occasion. "A lot of our clients are volunteers, too," Edie says. "It helps people who may be getting very isolated find a social outlet."
ASN fields a number of support and outreach programs, including a group called "Fusion" for younger gay men, "MoMENtum" for older gay guys, "Prevention with Positives," and the "My Face, My Voice" speakers program. "Our goal is to make safe sex the norm in our community," Edie says.
One unique feature of the ASO is the Steve Weiss AIDS Living Memorial Grove-one of only two memorial groves in California. "It's a place for the community to come and heal, to think about losses," Edie says. "It's also a wonderful educational opportunity. For instance, our local college has an annual "Week of Welcome" for incoming freshman. The end of the week is a day of service, and they came out to weed and mulch the grove. It gave us a chance to remind them of the AIDS epidemic and talk about safe sex."
ASN not only helps its clients find housing, it has housing units of its own. "We were forward-thinking a long time ago, and bought property here," Edie says. "We can house 13 clients in our own units. We also have some wonderful community partnerships, including a wonderful relationship with the local Housing Authority. Housing is an important piece of the puzzle for us-it stabilizes life for a lot of our clients."
Edie Kahn has been with the AIDS Support Network for 15 years. "It has been interesting to see how the community has grown in their acceptance of us," Edie says. "This community has really embraced us, but it is the result of a lot of hard work."
The AIDS Support Network was nominated for this "Spotlight" by one of their clients who also does volunteer work at the agency. "The AIDS Support Network is staffed by dedicated people who are caring and compassionate and wish to help make life better for those of us with HIV/AIDS," he said. "They were there for me at the darkest, lowest hour of my life."
More information about the AIDS Support Network of San Luis Obispo is available on-line at www.asn.org.
Copyright 2015, Positive Health Publications, Inc.
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