FEATURE ‌ What Friends? 

Local AIDS charity may face unsavory financial crunch

click to enlarge Lowcountry Aids Services Executive Director Bradley Childs wishes the state would get its AIDS priorities straight
  • Lowcountry Aids Services Executive Director Bradley Childs wishes the state would get its AIDS priorities straight

Lowcountry AIDS Services has some pretty basic items on its webpage wish list: copy machine paper, paper towels, toilet paper, legal pads. Stuff like that.

But now, thanks to a precipitous drop in support, the local not-for-profit that helps individuals infected with the deadly macrophage retrovirus might have to add a not-so-prosaic item to that list: diners.

Every May, LAS hosts Dining With Friends, an annual fund-raiser where people throw dinner parties at their homes, businesses, and churches, collecting donations from their guests that are then turned over to charity. This year, the fund-raising culminates with an evening dessert finale on Saturday, May 6 at the Charleston Maritime Center.

Typically, those attending Dining With Friends events are asked to donate the same amount of money a night out on the town would have cost, including a babysitter, though LAS is grateful for whatever people can afford to give.

Last year, 168 party-throwers signed up to host parties, but fewer than 100 actually took place. Despite the disparity, LAS received more than $116,000 in donations, which were used to fund services not covered by restrictive federal grants.

This year, however, scant weeks from the big party, only 110 parties have been registered. If the same pattern continues of far fewer parties being held than are registered, LAS could suffer its worst fund-raising gala in years.

LAS's executive director, Bradley Childs, is baffled by the drop-off and has no idea if the general public is "given out" after donating millions to disaster relief funds helping victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"My heart goes out to those victims," says Childs. "But my feeling is that we have to take care of our own in our own community. When it comes to this epidemic, it's probably not ever going away — though I'd love it if they found a cure and we could shut down this agency."

The federal aid given to the charity this year, passed down through state agencies like DHEC, has been cut by about $140,000, according to Childs. That equates to roughly 14 percent of the organization's $1 million annual budget.

So far, LAS has been forced to eliminate three staff positions, along with some free services it used to provide to indigent clients, like transportation support and dental benefits.

"We're referring a lot of the cases we used to handle in-house, and outsourcing others," says Childs. "It's a challenge."

Federal monies, mostly in the form of Ryan White funds, named for the Indiana teen who put a face on AIDS in the 1980s before succumbing to the disease in 1990, support six core areas at LAS: psychosocial and mental health support, dental and medical care, medication, and case management.

As for the rest of LAS's budget, the N. Charleston-based nonprofit has to rely on private donations and grants, because it receives no money from the state. This angers Childs, who says South Carolina currently ranks ninth in the country for AIDS infections, per capita.

That's not to say all of the news from the local AIDS front is bad. For the first time in quite a while, the number of newly-diagnosed AIDS victims dropped below 500 locally.

But that good news comes at a cost.

MUSC's Infectious Diseases Clinic lost nearly a quarter of its funding this year as a result of the tricounty not hitting the new infection mark, according to its nursing coordinator Valerie Assey, who also administers a portion of the Ryan White funds.

"I don't know the 'magic number' of new cases that has to be met in the tri-county area, but I do know that because we didn't hit it, I lost about $162,000 because there is no 'in-between' number — it's an all or nothing thing," she says, referring to an "emerging communities" grant included in the Ryan White federal program.

Coupled with a 6-percent, across-the-board cut, her clinic's annual budget dropped from $974,000 in 2005, to just over $755,000 in 2006.

As a result, Assey not only had to curtail donating money to LAS for case management, she also had to cut back on providing a pap-smear service, patient transportation, and nutritional supplements to roughly 800 current HIV/AIDS patients.

"The Ryan White dollars also went toward providing medications for clients who would have no other way of paying for their meds," says Assey. "Every year we received additional funding, and this year, out of the blue, we got cut."

In order to keep seeing new patients, Assey has resigned herself to the knowledge she'll have to offer fewer and fewer services. "Something just has to go; there's no way we can support an additional physician's salary now.

"We've lost so much money, it'll end up being a snowball effect, where we will have a longer waiting list with fewer slots open," says Assey, who is deeply grateful for the amount of financial and professional support MUSC has given.

"And as for the patients who do continue to come, there will be services not covered that used to be covered because I simply do not have the funding, and this clinic has to stay solvent."

Childs finds it very hard to believe that 500 new cases of AIDS could not be found in the tri-county region, and says he is checking with MUSC and state health officials to see what the exact number was this year.

Regardless of the number of new diagnoses, Childs says the funding system is flawed since it doesn't take into account new people moving into the area who have already been diagnosed.

In short, federal monies and grants don't usually follow a victim, but stay in his or her original community, he says, adding that, luckily, LAS hasn't been cut from the City of Charleston's donor list.

Childs is also concerned that cuts in funding and donations could be made worse by the state's abstinence-only AIDS prevention message it spreads in public schools, "because, let's face it, kids are not going to remain abstinent."

Childs is "appalled" that the state lost $1.05 million in Ryan White funding in the same year that it spent $2.7 million on abstinence-only until marriage programs, "including $500,000 for the Heritage Community Services, which goes into schools, while HIV/AIDS prevention programs received nothing."

And if the worst and the best come to pass — more people are infected with AIDS, but live longer thanks to expensive medical procedures and medicines — then LAS is going to need more money.

And a whole lot more Dining With Friends parties.

To sign up to host a Dining With Friends event, contact Lowcountry AIDS Services at 747-2273.


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