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ActionAIDS, Providing Buddies Since 1986

by Bob Sanders
Thursday Jan 31, 2013
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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 BodyPositive.com.

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."



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