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Mother-Daughter Duo Helps Thousands With HIV

Mother-Daughter Duo Helps Thousands With HIV

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A second generation of Smith women is helping Chicago’s South Side Help Center care for African-Americans with HIV

Back in 1987, the public perception was that AIDS was a disease of white gay men. But Betty Smith, who was working as a respiratory technician in a Chicago hospital, knew that wasn’t accurate. She had seen the inroads the disease had made among African-Americans but had also witnessed heartbreaking hostility to those suffering from it. In one instance, she encountered a minister wouldn’t enter the hospital room where one of his congregants lay dying of AIDS complications.

“She knew that was something she would not want the religious community to do,” says Vanessa Smith, Betty’s daughter and executive director of the South Side Help Center, the organization her mother founded in 1987 to address the AIDS crisis among Chicago’s African-Americans. Betty Smith, with help from her husband and daughters, set out to educate other African-Americans about HIV and AIDS, including what the risks are and how to prevent the spread of the disease.

“We were the only African-American organization in the 1980s to address HIV prevention,” says Vanessa Smith, and it is still one of the largest. Each year, it performs nearly 4,000 HIV tests and provides about 10,000 people with HIV prevention information. And it has about 300 HIV-positive clients in its case management program, which started in 1995.

“We’ve reached at least a million people over our 25 years of service,” says Smith, who became executive director when her mother retired four years ago. The Help Center now has 29 full-time employees in three locations.

A point of pride with the group is making sure its messages are culturally appropriate, whether the recipient is female or male, gay or straight. For example, Smith says, for many women, it’s not enough to hear that condoms prevent HIV transmission when used by men, as some men are not willing to use them. So it’s important to emphasize that a female condom is available.

Given that the Help Center was founded and is led by women, does that reflect women’s traditional role as nurturers? Well, women’s experience in this role helps, says Smith, but many men are terrific nurturers too. Of the staff as a whole, she says, “you have to have people who reflect the population which you’re serving,” whether that’s women, people recovering from substance abuse, or anything else.

Also, adjusting to changes in the epidemic is crucial. “What we’ve seen is people are living longer,” Smith says, and that has created more demand for case management, which involves coordinating all the medical care and other services, such as housing, that a client might need.

“We used to have more HIV test counselors,” she says. “Now we have more medical case managers.” The group recently received funding to provide linkage-to-care services, connecting people who are newly diagnosed or who have dropped out of care with the treatment they need.

“Our ability to really adapt to the changing environment has been a success for us,” says Smith. As long as AIDS exists, there will undoubtedly be more need to adapt and challenges to be met. “A lot of people are still so closed-minded,” Smith says when asked about challenges. “But we’re making inroads, and that’s a success for us.”

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