Floods and Funding Cutbacks Can’t Stop Louisiana ASO

South Louisiana AIDS Council Picture

SLAC’s Weekly BINGO night is a fun, reliable fundraiser for the organization

By Andy Smith

In December, The Southwest Louisiana AIDS Council will celebrate 20 years of helping people with HIV/AIDS in the parishes around the city of Lake Charles.

It’s been a satisfying and fulfilling venture, but far from an easy one. In that time, this ASO has battled hurricanes, homophobia and, most recently, drastic federal funding cuts.

“We learned we would experience a $20,000 budget cut to our Food Pantry Program due to the reallocation of funds under the Ryan White CARE Act,” says Executive Director Terry Estes.  The organization recently received a BC/EFA grant that will assist them in making up the budget deficit.

“This grant has been the answer to our prayers,” Estes says.

A few years ago, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, SLAC received a $7,500 BC/EFA food services grant that arrived just in time to help them buy a 16×24 foot metal storage facility (pictured), which the ASO air-conditioned and filled with non-perishable foods, freeing limited indoor space for perishable items.

The storage facility was especially useful because food donations poured in to assist hurricane evacuees and the organization did not have the storage space to accommodate the influx of donations, says Estes, who adds that the recovery continues for residents and evacuees even two years after the storm.

A Disease that Impacts Everyone
SLAC wasfounded in 1987, when much of rural Louisiana still dismissed AIDS as “a gay man’s disease… that didn’t have anything to do with us,” the executive director admits, adding, “But in the midst of that denial and ignorance a small group of concerned citizens…came together to address what they saw as a burgeoning problem.”  They called themselves Humans in Victory Over AIDS and set about to help people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS in the region.

A loan from the organization’s first board chair and a grant from the State got them started. Today, in addition to food and transportation, SLAC provides prevention education, case management, mental health counseling, substance abuse assessment/treatment, as well as emergency funds for rent, mortgage and utility payments (another service area which has experienced cuts).

Bouncing Back From Devastation
Although SLAC has been operating about as long as we have, Broadway Cares first learned of its work in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when we sought out service providers in the Gulf region in need of emergency aid.

After Katrina, Lake Charles (pop. 70,000) offered a helping hand, serving as a destination during the New Orleans evacuation; the town’s motels, hotels, civic center, and its college coliseum filled with evacuees. During this crisis, SLAC referred anxious callers to the Comprehensive Care Clinic (CCC) – a Ryan White CARE Act-funded HIV clinic located at W.O. Moss Regional Medical Center – and offered prescription reimbursement to HIV-infected evacuees.

Rita, however, hit much harder. All New Orleans evacuees plus countless Cameron and Calcasieu Parish residents were forced to evacuate, and the AIDS council had to close its office from Sept. 22 until Oct.17, when power and telephone service were restored.

Better Days
Things are slowly looking up, with funding coming in from weekly BINGO sessions that help fill in the funding gaps to meet client needs and operating costs.  A separate organization now, Human’s in Victory Over AIDS, hosts an annual Gala and donates the proceeds to SLAC. In 2006  they raised $45,000 after the hurricanes forced the cancellation of the 2005 event.

Estes has even discovered a positive slant to the Ryan White changes. “On the flip side, due to the core services mandate, we have been able to add mental health counseling and substance abuse assessment/group treatment for the first time. This will enable us to offer a full spectrum of services and a continuum of care to the people we serve.”