Michigan AIDS Coalition

At last year's DIFFA and MAC gala event: NAMES Project, Blumz by JR. Photo courtesy MAC
“After the verb ‘to love,’ ‘to help’ is the most beautiful verb in the world.” The quote by Bertha von Suttner is one of many that emblazons Michigan AIDS Coalition’s (MAC) Web site and it succinctly exemplifies the care and dedication with which its staff and volunteers provide services for the communities of Michigan. Helping does not only extend to clients, but other organizations as well. MAC has re-energized its mission through newly formed collaborations.

Launched in February 2009, when the Michigan AIDS Fund and the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project merged as a proactive response to the recession, MAC seeks to “prevent HIV/AIDS in Michigan by promoting healthy lifestyles, providing and investing in evidence-based, innovative programs and through advocacy and education.”

Along with HIV/AIDS informational sessions, counseling, testing and referrals, Internet prevention outreach, and pet assistance for individuals living with HIV/AIDS, among other programs targeted to everyone, MAC provides supportive services to the LGBT community, and in culturally sensitive ways. Detroit [email protected] is a health promotion, community-building, and advocacy project for Michigan Latinos who are also LGBT. MPowerment Detroit reaches out to young gay and bisexual African-American males, creating a safe space for prevention-centered social events, public forums, and group meetings. Many Men, Many Voices also targets African-American men, but not exclusively youth.

Helen Hicks, CEO of MAC, says that fulfilling the nonprofit’s mission in the face of economic hardship continues to be its most pressing challenge. An “overall decline of funding,” she says, seems to be in the air and she can’t quite put her finger on exactly why. “There’s still a very strong sense of depression when it comes to donating to nonprofits, and, especially, I think, to nonprofits that serve the LGBTQ community. As a result of that, funding has been down, in spite of very wonderful new funding initiatives.”

As convener of the Michigan Community AIDS Fund, MAC’s grantmaking work has been down as well. Says Hicks: “We have had less and less of the ‘extra’ funds. As the earmarked state grants, for example, have been reduced—and that’s not just MAC, that’s everybody—we find ourselves having less and less money outside of direct program support to do the kinds of things we used to do in the past, which was give out grants for syringe exchange and those types of programs.”

She adds, “Grantmaking for us is very much slowing down. We were able to make some grants this year, but it has been limited.”

Instead of waiting out the economic downturn, MAC has tried to be resourceful about keeping its funding on track. “I think MAC is a very optimistic organization,” says Hicks, about the mindset of the nonprofit in the face of challenges. “We are in the process of looking under every rock for every resource; expanding our events, of course, which generate unrestricted dollars; and building new relationships with people whom we never knew before or improving relationships with groups that may have had some relationship [with us] before, prior to my coming on board. So, lots of coffees, and lunches, and shaking of hands, and touring—and trying to figure out what everybody’s doing and how we might be able to work together more effectively. I think that’s a huge focus at MAC: We don’t want to do it all, but we do do a couple of things really well and we’d like to work with others so we can all continue to do what we really do well.”

When asked what it is she thinks they do well, Hicks responds: “We’re wonderful at testing and prevention. We do a great deal of referrals in the community. People come to us when they won’t come to anybody else because they have a great sense of comfort here. They know that this is a place where they can walk in the door, and no matter what their lifestyle is, nobody is going to judge them and they’re going to be treated with respect. And they’re going to find out immediately what their status is.

“Even if their status is negative, they know that they have someone they can talk to about their lifestyle, about choices that they have made or about choices that they really want to make, and to figure out what’s the best way to go about living their life in a healthy manner. And so there’s a lot of friendships here. A lot of staff that have seen people come here for advice and counseling, whereas they might not go anywhere else.”

The safe haven is created through the work of an “very educated and open and wonderful” staff, says Hicks, which is comprised of a spectrum of individuals, LGBT and straight. “Together, this blend of very different people with a great respect for all people creates an easy, open environment for folks [seeking services] who are really nervous. They get treated poorly on the outside, sometimes in their own families, and they come here and they know that they can just be themselves.” She adds: “I think that [kind of care] is one of the things that we specialize in—it’s sort of a ‘soft’ thing. You really can’t package that, but it’s important.”

Hicks includes volunteers in the mix as well. MAC has the only AmeriCorp program in Michigan that trains volunteers in HIV/AIDS. “That’s been really huge because it’s been like a training ground for young people. They learn this field through that wonderful opportunity to work in agencies that serve that particular population.” Afterward, the state of Michigan and nonprofits often hire on AmeriCorp volunteers as staff.

MAC’s success in placing a diverse group of people can be attributed to Terry Ryan, Special Grants Manager and AmeriCorp City Supervisor, who has been working in the HIV/AIDS field for almost three decades. Says Hicks: “Terry has such an open mind when it comes to interviewing and selecting the finalists for this program. We have young people coming in who are straight, gay, questioning—everything. And they’re really touched by this particular program, and, ultimately, by any agency in which they are placed. There’s always a strong bond that occurs between them and that agency. Once in a while we’re lucky enough where we’re able to have [an] AmeriCorp [volunteer] here!”

Along with its services and grantmaking, MAC works on advocacy issues by raising awareness about the epidemic, the need for prevention, and philanthropy among members of the general public as well as grantmakers and funders; mobilizing policy makers and community leaders to respond to the epidemic; and expanding regional and national collaborations.

“We have a Day in the Capital coming up on May 1. We’re trying to rally a huge amount of people, all of the HIV/AIDS organizations throughout Michigan, to join us up there on that particular day to talk about the fact that HIV and AIDS is very prominent. In other words, funding sources have looked the other way recently because they know that there are great drugs available and people are living longer—and so they focus their attention on other issues. Lately, they’ve focused their attention on hunger, for example, because of the economy,” notes Hicks. “But the truth of the matter is: There are over 22,000 infected people in Michigan, over 11,000 just in the city of Detroit, and those are just the people who have been identified. There’s a host of folks walking around who don’t even know they’re infected and they continue to infect other people. And many of them, by the time they do find out they’re infected, have AIDS and their organs are in pretty bad shape and they’re not going to make it. So, to turn a blind eye to this particular issue is not wise. We’re doing everything we can to keep the word going, to educate legislators.”

Looking ahead, Hicks and others from MAC would like to attend the International AIDS Conference and make sure all of its programs have the funds they need, but the summer months are always lean, and its DIFFA fundraiser isn’t until September.

“I was trying to think of an on-line or e-mail [promotion] that I could send out to all of our donors. I was thinking, ‘What could I do that’s like Groupon?! What could I offer?’ And I was thinking I might be able to do something like, buy your DIFFA ticket today!” she says, laughing. “The cheapest ticket is $100 and I was thinking, ‘Okay, if I offer discount tickets today, $75, or even $50 for a $100 ticket, I wonder if I’d get a bite.’ I might try that!”

Despite the scarcity of funds, MAC is moving forward. The nonprofit has branched out to provide hep C testing, thanks to a grant, and more STD testing.
“We’re also collaborating very much with CHAG (Community Health Awareness Group) in Detroit. We respect them so much,” adds Hicks. “They reached out to us for some collaborative grants, one of which was recently funded to serve the transgender community more effectively, and that’s been a lot of fun, working with another organization to really reach out and find these folks in the community. I’ve been able to work with a relative who’s a trangendered person.

“But I think the nice thing is the whole collaboration, getting to know their staff, really understanding the strengths of their organization and how they work through grants. I love that process of listening to how they do it and I would hang up the phone and say to myself, ‘Okay, we want to do it just the way they do it. They’re so awesome!’”

In closing, she notes, “We’re not an island. We look up to those organizations doing great work…I guess I have a sense of awe over all these wonderful groups that are out there doing this work and I want to find ways to be able to work collaboratively with them, because, in the end, I think there might not be enough money for all of us to be islands. I think we really have to do more together.

The collaborative spirit even extends to the state of Michigan’s Community Health HIV Program: “Honestly I think they’re doing everything they can to keep our programs going and I’m not saying that to be politically correct—because we did get hit hard—I’m saying it because honestly I think they really decreased their own staff so that all of us, all these agencies out here, could have very viable programs within the communities. We’re all a big team and we need to work together.”

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

May 2012