Hyacinth AIDS Foundation

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Kathy Ahearn-O'Brien. Photos Courtesy Hyacinth AIDS Foundation
Hyacinth is a lavender-colored flower, it’s a species of parrot, it’s the social climbing character in the classic BBC series, Keeping Up Appearances—and it’s an AIDS foundation in New Brunswick, a city in New Jersey south of Newark and home to Rutgers University.

“Hyacinth AIDS Foundation [HAF] was founded in 1985 by a woman named Margie Nichols and a group of volunteers to provide supportive services to gay men who were dying from HIV,” explains Kathy Ahearn-O’Brien, executive director. “The urban legend at Hyacinth is that the name was based on Greek mythology.”

According to the myth, Hyacinth was a beautiful boy and lover of the god Apollo, though he was also admired by the West Wind, Zephyrus. Apollo and Hyacinth took turns throwing a discus. Meanwhile, a feud developed between Zephyrus and Apollo. Jealous that Hyacinth preferred the radiant god Apollo, Zephyrus blew Apollo’s discus off course to injure and kill Hyacinth. When he died, Apollo made a flower, the hyacinth, from his spilled blood.

“When I first started at Hyacinth in 1997,” Kathy points out, “a shortened version of this was on our printed materials. It was believed that this story dealt with the issues pertinent to HIV infection—gay love and bodily fluids and out of these came beauty. A few years ago, someone who knew Margie when the agency was founded said that story is incorrect, that Margie is an avid gardener. She loves hyacinths as they are one of the first flowers that come up in the spring after a dreary winter and it signifies new life. In either case it was apparent that the founders wanted some level of anonymity for clients as ‘AIDS’ and ‘HIV’ were not in the name. The legal name is Hyacinth Foundation—‘AIDS’ was added to the title in the early nineties as a way to destigmatize the services that are offered.”

Hyacinth AIDS Foundation was the first AIDS organization in New Jersey and recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. Currently there are eight offices, in six cities. Their two newest locations include a co-location with a medical provider in the city of Newark and the Drop-In Center in Jersey City.

Among other services, the Drop-In Center has a perinatal prevention program for women, where they and their partners can be tested for STIs. The Center also has a syringe exchange program. Aside from clean syringes and counseling resources, wound care is provided for injection drug users so that they are less likely to develop a local infection. Injection drug users also learn skills to keep injection sites clean. The center also serves homeless individuals who are at high risk for contracting HIV and other STDs. They dish up a hot meal daily, provide shower and laundry facilities, and they also have a nurse who works with women of child-bearing ages and their partners. She’s able to test for syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia, as well as provide vaccinations. The Drop-In Center sees approximately 340 unduplicated clients annually and 150 clients per month.

“The staff there are fantastic and go above and beyond to provide services. They constantly arrange for clothing donations, particularly in these winter months, so that clients have coats, hats, etc. The underserved, impoverished active drug-using population is often difficult to find culturally competent services for, yet our staff does a really good job getting them assistance!” Kathy says with enthusiastic gratefulness.

Later this month, on February 24, Hyacinth will have their grand opening of Project LOL (Living Out Loud), a center for young gay men of color. It will be located above the Drop-In Center; however, the two departments will share minimal space downstairs, particularly the kitchen and laundry facilities. Some activities for Project LOL include weekly movie nights, group discussions, advocacy opportunities, and community volunteer activities. Individual and group counseling sessions will be provided, along with in-house counseling and testing, and a mobile testing unit will be used for outreach.

“We anticipate 600 men and hope to lower the seropositivity rate to four percent,” enthuses Kathy. She adds, “Our goal is to have these guys help develop a health campaign that will positively impact their community. Our expectation is that we’ll have a strong community presence particularly at events such as Hudson Pride in the summer.”

HAF is multifaceted, providing many services including legal, spiritual, case management support, financial assistance, housing opportunities, referrals, a hotline, education, outreach programs, mobile testing service and counseling, and one-on-one and group counseling.

Some of the services provided for those living with HIV/AIDS include: case management services, which offer one-on-one support to familiarize clients with HAF

The Hyacinth AIDS Foundation team takes time to have fun and bond at a staff picnic.
services and educate clients on how to confront daily challenges of living with HIV; emergency financial assistance for utilities; legal advocacy; pastoral care services, in part staffed by an ordained minister, who provides spiritual support, and a chaplain, who offers crisis intervention and referrals if necessary; wellness group; discharge planning for offenders; and housing opportunities, among others. HAF’s counseling and testing services, based in North Plainfield, enables clients to discuss their risks and decide their need for testing. Project POW! (Prevention Outreach Works) offers prevention interventions that include counseling and education.

“Our mission is to help people live with HIV, slow the spread of the epidemic, and serve as a critical voice in the public debate surrounding HIV,” asserts Kathy emphatically. “To us, this means that we work with clients to become active participants in their lives and to find their voice. The driving principle for us is that we believe that if you’re an active participant in your life you will have better health outcomes.”

Kathy pauses a moment to reflect on what she just said. “To be more accurate, it’s working with clients to figure out what it means to be active in their lives—does it mean figuring out a relationship with a significant other or other family member? Is it going back to work or school? For some, it means learning how to have a relationship with their medical provider. For others, it means teaching them how to become an advocate in the broader HIV community, helping them develop the skills so that they can join planning councils or meet with their legislators.”

She continues: “And while we work with them on this, we also make sure that their basic needs are met—housing is secure, food is on the table, and they have access to healthcare and medications.”

Hyacinth’s next fundraiser is AIDS Walk NY in May. AIDS Walk NJ was declining in participation so Hyacinth approached GMHC and AIDS Walk NY and they formed a partnership in 2006. Hyacinth markets AIDS Walk NY in New Jersey and the funds from New Jersey walkers are distributed throughout New Jersey, supporting those living with HIV. “It’s a phenomenal collaboration,” says Kathy, “and it’s worked out very well.”

Whether Hyacinth AIDS Foundation was named after a myth or a flower, the place is a blooming, full-service organization!

For more information, log on to www.hyacinth.org.

February 2012