Smashing the Stigma
by Margaret Pilarski
“Even after all these years I still become emotional when I think about it,” says Brad.
“No one should suffer the way that people who were HIV positive back in the early ‘90s had to suffer. Of course, in those early days nobody really knew what it was…” says Brad Childs, as he sits behind his desk as executive director of Lowcountry AIDS Services.
In the early 1990s, Greg, Brad’s brother, was diagnosed with the disease. And although Greg’s care was facilitated by insurance coverage and a capable and caring family, the unfortunate reality that Greg’s experience wasn’t typical isn’t lost on Brad.
“Stigma is such a big part of it,” says Brad, “We had one individual who told his parents that he was positive and they threw him out. He got caught stealing food and a police officer caught him and didn’t take him to jail, but got him connected with us. We were able to get him into stable housing and get him the support that he needed,” says Brad.
That’s a prime example of the ways in which LAS operates today. For more than 20 years, LAS has provided testing, assistance and support to men, women and children living with HIV/AIDS across Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties.
For 17 of those years, Brad has been a driver of its success. “Soon after Greg passed, I tried to volunteer and I just couldn’t. It was too difficult to do.” But through his medical compliance work with the Medical University of South Carolina, Brad met a physician who was the board chair of LAS. One day he mentioned to Brad that the agency was hiring for a finance and grant position. After four years in that role, Brad was asked to step in as interim executive director and eventually took on the job permanently.
What began as a small office downtown has now grown to have over 20 staff members dedicated to providing care coordination, acting as peer advocates, providing testing and counseling, as well as providing assistance with nutrition, housing and finances – important elements that often prevent patients from reliable access to care.
“Our ultimate goal is to serve the patient. It’s not an entitlement program. There are action plans,” says Brad. “But the stigma—that’s the biggest challenge. Letting people know that this can happen to anybody. This isn’t a gay man’s disease, this isn’t a poor man’s disease—anyone can become infected.”
In fact, the push for awareness reaches into a variety of communities with different risk factors. Because one of the at-risk populations that LAS works to serve is African American men who have sex with men, Brad says outreach to those communities is crucial. “We do have some AME churches that are very supportive of the agency, and we have other churches where we’ve tried to set up HIV ministries to help educate youth—of course South Carolina being an abstinence-only state just makes it so difficult—but we need to help educate the African American community and let them know of resources and that they’re not alone.”
Whether someone’s awareness is raised through
church, a barbershop, gay clubs, social media, health fairs or the radio, individuals can come to LAS and get results within 20 minutes. And if a patient receives a positive result, it’s all hands on deck for the LAS team.
“If they’re positive they’re put with our linkage to care coordinator,” explains Brad, “She gets them their first appointments, connecting them with a peer who can sit in on the process if the individual wants them to, and then a case manager is assigned. We kind of hold their hand through that beginning process.”
Any number of factors can determine where a patient’s next challenge might lie. If they have health insurance coverage, LAS can help with referrals, copays or deductibles. If the patient doesn’t have coverage, they’re enrolled through the Affordable Care Act to access covered medical care.
Most of all, Brad says Charleston’s biggest barrier is affordable housing. “We find that if people don’t have stable housing, they don’t have access to medical care.” With a stack of medical bills, and the need for ongoing care, it’s essential that a patient’s housing be as stable as possible. “Without that, nothing fall into place,” says Brad.
For those in the community who want to support the work of LAS, there are two annual fundraisers: a beer garden in May at Patriots Point, and a community classic – Gay BINGO, in August. Both tend to sell out quickly. Year-round, LAS also teams up with collaborators to host special events, like their work with Towne Centre’s Belk men’s store and King Street’s eponymous M. Dumas & Sons to raise thousands of dollars for LAS in shopping-themed events.
The team is always looking for volunteers and donations in any amount. “We once had a little girl who could barely see over our counter come to the office—but she brought a jar of change in for us,” says Brad with a smile on his face.
And the community’s support means more success stories for LAS and their growing team. Although every day is difficult for them, the work has its own rewards. “It never gets easy. To have the empathy, for my staff to have to tell someone that they’re positive, that’s heartbreaking for them. But what I emphasize to them is that they’re making a difference. We are literally changing lives.