Around this time last year, the non-profit organization Action Wellness, formerly known as ActionAIDS, underwent a rebrand.
“Today, the reality is that people with AIDS can achieve wellness.” That was the message delivered by Kevin Burns, the organization’s executive director. “We didn’t want this rebranding and renaming process to make people with HIV feel that we were abandoning them. We want to expand and provide more services for them as well as for other people with chronic illness.”
Now as the LGBT+ community celebrates pride month, Kevin Burns and his team at Action Wellness, continue the fight to provide medical care to those suffering from HIV/AIDS and chronic illnesses.
“We have to celebrate what we have accomplished, but then recommit to resisting and continuing to stand up for what we know is right,” said Burns, who has been with the organization on one capacity or another for the past 28 years.
Founded in 1986, Action Wellness serves approximately 4,000 people per year and has a range of free medical and social services available for those living with or predisposed to HIV/AIDS as well as other chronic illnesses. Services include: case management, medical and pregnancy care, emotional support, employment and educational resources, and a prison program for those incarcerated or released.
One of the latest programs is Club 1509, which focuses on providing men and transgender people of color preventative medication against HIV, as well as educational, housing, and employment resources.
“Those are populations that experience a lot of stigma and have a lot of historical issues trusting medical providers as well as social service providers,” Burns said. “So it is a population that has been traumatized, if you will, so they need more support to first off, feel entitled to services.”
A noble concept considering the CDC reported that in 2015, Black and African American gay and bisexual men made up the largest number of HIV diagnoses (10,315) in the United States. HIV can still be a deadly disease, especially if people are not able to access the care needed, a message that Burns admitted could be better publicized. In the CDC report, 1.1 million Americans are estimated to be living with HIV, and 1-in-7 are unaware of their HIV positive status. According to the report, HIV directly caused 6,721 deaths in 2014.
Burns described the services Action Wellness provides to combat the spread of HIV as a “holistic” approach to treating patients.
“Most of our clients are living significantly below the poverty level,” Burns explained. “Finding safe, affordable housing for people is a top priority for us, because if they are living on the streets or in shelters, they are not likely staying connected with primary care, they are not likely taking their medications. Poor people with chronic illness, they are also more disproportionately represented with HIV. A lot of folks, who keep me awake at night, are HIV positive and don’t know it, because they are not getting treatment and they are not going to achieve that chronic illness sort of status with HIV.”
Another thing keeping Burns awake at night are the proposed budget cuts the Trump Administration have made to federally fund these types of services. Action Wellness lobbies congress 2-3 times a year with CAEAR Coalition, a national advocacy organization for emergency AIDS relief. While the organization usually heads to Washington, D.C., this summer they will lobby congress members when they are back in Philadelphia on break. Now, their main goal is to secure level funding from the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, a federal fund for HIV-related services.
But to that, Burns responded: “We are holding our breath.”
According to Burns and Sarah DeLaurentis, director of development and communications, Action Wellness has focused on supplementing from government contracts with grants from private foundations and pharmaceutical companies. DeLaurentis explained that they accept individual donations and their biggest fundraising event is Dining Out For Life, a citywide event where participating restaurants donate a third of their proceeds from the day. The projected amount from the annual April event seems to be around $200,000, in line with what they have raised in the past.
When asked what motivated Burns to work in this career field, he said, “Very early in the epidemic and all through the early years, I lost a lot of very dear friends to AIDS.” Before becoming an employee, he volunteered in the buddy program, which provides one-on-one emotional and practical care, to “memorialize” those he lost. “When I was a case manager [at Action Wellness], it was not unusual to have two or three clients a week die…[but] we are not about to give up. We are not about to fold.”
Action Wellness will have an information table at the Philly Pride Parade on Sunday. For more information about the organization and its various locations throughout the Greater Philadelphia Region, visit actionwellness.org.