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ActionAIDS, Providing Buddies Since 1986

by Bob Sanders
Thursday Jan 31, 2013

The City of Brotherly Love has come a long way in the 20 years since the release of "Philadelphia," Hollywood's 1993 A-list, Oscar-winning weeper on the AIDS epidemic. This year sees the city well positioned in the long-term fight against HIV and AIDS, with more than two dozen testing, treatment, education, and legal service providers. Among them is ActionAIDS, which may be the only AIDS/HIV Care organization within the United States maintaining a strong volunteer buddy program.

"Nobody planned the Buddy Program. Buddies evolved organically out of a need. They helped sick people with the tasks of daily living -- shopping, cleaning, cooking, laundry, getting to the doctor or other appointments, whatever might need to be done," wrote Tom Weber in a Jan/Feb 2000 article on

The program was inspired by the volunteer care program launched by the New York-based Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1982, which provided basic quality of life services to hundreds of the early sufferers of AIDS. The program also inspired Arthur Bressan, Jr.'s 1985 low-budget tragedy, "Buddies," an unflinching depiction of the loneliness and alienation confronting the sick and the volunteer buddies alike.

"Buddies" was released five years before 1990's slick, polished "Longtime Companion," even preceding network television's memorable "An Early Frost." Today the little-seen film, which far exceeded in raw power the bigger-budgeted films that followed, has all but vanished, as have almost all of the buddy programs that originally inspired it.

Over the years, the care protocols developed for HIV management have reduced AIDS to a chronic but life-manageable medical syndrome. While the heartening advances are undeniably encouraging, the gradual disappearance of classic volunteer buddy programs suggests that a crucial front may have been abandoned in the battle against AIDS.

ActionAIDS now operates with an annual budget of just over $7 million, a full time staff of 87 and a roster of more than 350 volunteers. More than 4,000 clients receive services, making it Pennsylvania's largest service resource devoted exclusively to the care and management of HIV/AIDS.

And under ActionAIDS Executive Director Kevin Burns and longtime Director of Volunteer Services Ron Hoskins, the buddy program is alive and well in Philadelphia.

"We're very proud of our buddy program," said Burns. "It has flourished over the years because we worked hard to keep it relevant."

Hailing from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, Burns, 57, originally chose a monastic life as a Catholic Brother of Charity. "I lived with the Brothers in South Philadelphia while working in an elementary school and in a group home for boys," Burns told EDGE. He left the order when he came out as gay, saying, "It was a difficult transition for me. I missed the religious life -- the shared values, the commitment to service, the spirituality."

In 1984, Burns volunteered as a buddy for The Philadelphia AIDS Task Force (now The Mazzoni Center). "Like many gay men of the era, I had friends who were dying of AIDS. I felt I had to do something," said Burns.

By 1986 -- and perhaps reflecting the often difficult politics of the era -- a group split away from the Task Force to form ActionAIDS. Burns went with them. Burns volunteered for the nascent buddy program at this grassroots organization with limited resources. By 1989, when ActionAIDS received funding for casework management, Burns accepted a position on staff. With a BA in Psychology and a Masters Degree in social work, Burns' background made the choice a logical one.

"My partner and I wanted to give back," Burns told EDGE. "I left my job as a mental health worker and went full time at ActionAIDS, which was already a place where employees and volunteers had a mission and a sense of purpose. I had finally found my real community."

Two Decades Later, ActionAIDS Still Provides Buddies

Six years ago, Burns became executive director. Today, ActionAIDS’ care programs are available to both the heterosexual and LGBT communities.

"Our funding confines us to providing services only to Philadelphia residents, so we are demographic specific. But we are neither ethnic-specific nor orientation-specific," said Burns. "By necessity, today’s buddies are different. Buddies still provide the classic, practical approach, but because the clients are generally healthier, buddies now are often the eyes and ears of the case managers."

Burns said that ActionAIDS has some volunteers who have been with them for up to 25 years. They also have several former clients who now volunteer as buddies. One buddy is a formerly homeless woman who once lived on the street, battling significant mental health and addiction issues. The staff offered her food and showers, and when she got sick, found her housing. Burns said that her condition eventually stabilized, she went back to work, and not long after, she volunteered to be a buddy.

"Even so, it’s a bit of revolving door. Every volunteer needs a few months of a break without an assignment," he said. "Our team leaders have to keep a close eye on it. And we host a huge annual volunteer appreciation party at the beginning of November, before the holiday parties begin. We have a DJ, a buffet, an open bar and door prizes, all donated."

Relying on Volunteers to Provide the Necessary Support

As Director of Volunteer Services, Hoskins defined buddies and their incalculable value to the care process, noting that the agency began with 75 volunteers doing grunt work, and evolved into an organized program where they are solicited, screened, trained and constantly supervised in providing emotional support, companionship, and sometimes the tasks of daily living to someone living with HIV/AIDS.

"Volunteer buddies started ActionAIDS," said Hoskins. "The wealth they bring is not about playing the role of a professional social worker. They bring a different perspective -- we call it ’friendly feelings’ -- and the benefits are sometimes better than a friend might bring."

Hoskins, now 63, was ordained a Diocesan Catholic priest in 1976. By the early 1980s, deeply affected by the crisis, he began to minister to some of the infected. "Even then there was within me a recognition of the gay community. I wanted an opportunity to be of service," he recalled to EDGE.

When his Cardinal flatly refused his 1988 request to minister to AIDS sufferers, Hoskins pursued the matter on his own, unofficially leaving the priesthood and moving to New York. There he landed a job as a receptionist at GMHC, eventually being promoted to assistant coordinator, and then coordinator of intervention services, directing GMHC’s then-strong buddy program.

By 1994 there were 44 buddy teams under Hoskins’ management at GMHC, with more than 550 volunteers. But he missed Philadelphia, and when he was offered the position of director of volunteer services for ActionAIDS, he accepted.

Hoskins noted that the position has redefined itself over the years. At ActionAIDS, Hoskins has 14 teams, with from 8-12 volunteers per team, including two team leaders. They meet on the second Thursday of each month to share news and updates, and introduce new volunteers. Unlike other unwieldy buddy programs, the meetings are ordered, starting at 5:30 p.m. and ending by 9 p.m.

"No one has ever said, ’I have too much support," said Hoskins. "Everyone needs someone’s support at some point. And now, because the disease has moved from a terminal condition to a chronic one, over the years, an individual’s support network may move on. That is the challenge. Personal health ebbs and flows, but there is always a need for support."

Hoskins said that lack of funding was the downfall of many other organization’s buddy programs. He also noted the challenges of meeting the demands of clients spread out over a large area, noting that some AIDS organizations can cover four or five counties and hundreds of miles.

This is when good case management can make all the difference.

"When the case manager is able to make suitable referrals for buddy assignment," Hoskins explained, "it’s allowed us to reach out to provide buddy services to other Philadelphia organizations. It’s all about sharing the wealth."

Perry Monastero, Director of Development and Marketing at the Mazzoni Center, agreed.

"I know a fair amount of local Philadelphians who have participated in the Buddy Program at ActionAIDS, and I know from hearing from friends that the program was extraordinarily meaningful for both the buddy as well as the client," said Monastero.

Hoskins is particularly respectful of what may be ActionAIDS strongest resource: the people.

"The quality of people we have working with us is incredible. At our meeting last week, I acknowledged a 27-year veteran buddy, who was one of the original group of 75 that founded ActionAIDS in 1986," said Hoskins. "We have people just out of high school, and we have a volunteer who is 81-years old. We’re lucky to have such diversity, whether it comes to orientation, religious background, ethnicity, or professional skills. When I am making a placement I have a pool I can choose from. I have to pat Philadelphia on the back. It’s the real strength of the program."

"Our original mission statement, ’No one should face AIDS alone’ is now our vision statement," said Burns. "Our Board feels a responsibility to periodically revisit the mission statement to make it more accessible, and word tweaks over the years have expanded it to include language describing an AIDS-free generation."

Budget Challenges Still a Woe for ActionAIDS

In 2011, statewide budget cuts decreased funding for Philadelphia’s HIV/AIDS organizations by more than $2 million. At the time, Burns went on record saying that this 42 percent budget cut was unacceptable at a time when Philadelphia’s infection rates are far greater than the national average.

"It was devastating," Burns remembered. "We were fortunate in that we had a small surplus to stay financially healthy. But if we break even in 2012, I will be doing the happy dance. Our big challenge in 2013 will be to provide the same level of service with less funding."

Burns spoke candidly to EDGE about the challenges ahead: among them, prevention. He suggested establishing routine testing in ERs, corporate testing or even testing via dental offices.

"Our Philadelphia programs focus on people who already know about their status," said Burns. "Overall, we would be doing a more thorough job if we were catching people who are HIV-positive, but not yet aware of their status. It’s a barrier we face blocking more effective prevention."

He remained optimistic about the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia, bolstered by the success of the Mazzoni Center, Philadelphia Fight, the Jonathan Lax Treatment Center and BEBASHI, Blacks Educate Blacks About Sexual Health Issues.

"We are way past competing for funding," he said, noting that because one organization may not be the right fit, there are choices of different providers with both large and small staffs of dedicated professionals committed to building relationships and providing care.

"I think we do a really great job in Philadelphia," said Burns. "We have a solid network of providers working hard to get people into care. So even with our client-base diversity, there are other organizations within Philadelphia that may provide a better fit for certain people looking for services. We urge everyone to find the best organization for them."

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