Students help AIDS advocacy effort

Students on any college campus who focus on their studies can easily find themselves cut off from the rest of the world. And during midterm season, few students have time to think about, much less become active in, the fight against HIV/AIDS. But Yale student groups and organizations in the broader New Haven community continue efforts to combat the deadly virus by providing relief to its victims and raising awareness about its effects.

The Leeway AIDS hospice and AIDS Project New Haven — two of the 10 organizations that make up New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s Task Force on AIDS — provide medical care and living assistance to HIV/AIDS victims and their families, while groups such as Yale AIDS Watch and Yale AIDS Walk are working to increase student advocacy and activism. Yale AIDS Walk is currently organizing the second annual AIDS walk in New Haven, scheduled for April 8.

The Leeway AIDS hospice, which has been operating for more than a decade, is a skilled nursing facility that offers both short- and long-term rehabilitation services and palliative care for the dying. Executive Director Martha Dale said Leeway has recently expanded its services to include a community program that provides HIV/AIDS sufferers with housing and access to medical services.

To this end, Leeway received a $460,000 grant at the end of last year from the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Meyers Squibb to design new post-discharge housing and care options for the most frail of the AIDS population, Dale said. This grant is part of a Bristol-Meyers global initiative to build community infrastructures in populations with HIV/AIDS, she said.

“What we’re doing at Leeway is designing new alternatives for residential and clinical services to keep the frailest members of the AIDS population housed within the community,” Dale said. “We’re starting to provide intensive case management services, and we’re also looking at supportive housing to keep people from getting lonely and to keep them engaged in the health system so they don’t fall off their health care regimes.”

With a similar eye toward support, AIDS Project New Haven is developing a new initiative — “Community Promise” — that directs testing of particular groups who are typically at greater risk for the disease.

APNH director Ellen Gabrielle said their facility is now open every third Monday for free and confidential testing. The federal grant funding Community Promise received last July was based on research conducted by the CDC identifying the black and gay communities among groups at a greater-than-average risk for HIV, she said.

Gabrielle said APNH was founded by members of the gay community 23 years ago as an educational service, but has since expanded to provide free psychiatric care, substance abuse recovery, nutritional counseling, a meal delivery system and, like Leeway, a case-management program that links clients to various medical and social services.

“Education is what we were founded to do,” Gabrielle said. “At the time the virus became known, there was no need for services because people were dying. All we could do was provide education and hope that we could help people understand, at that time 23 years ago, that this was a death sentence. Now, with [AIDS] cocktails, it has become apparent that people are able to live with HIV/AIDS and that they are going to need special services.”

Gabrielle said many of the clients that APNH currently serves are below the poverty level, and also face mental disorders and substance abuse problems, so HIV is not necessarily their primary concern.

In addition to direct community-based efforts, both the Leeway hospice and APNH are involved in political and legal initiatives that aim to increase awareness and advocacy. Yale students are also involved in such activities, including the organization of AIDS Walk New Haven.

Evan Orenstein ’08 and Shilpa Madhavan ’07, the founders and co-coordinators of Yale AIDS Walk, are currently organizing the University’s second annual such event. Last year, they attracted more than 500 participants and raised approximately $38,000, Orenstein said, and the group hopes to surpass last year’s total this year.

Orenstein said the money raised from the AIDS Walk will be donated to 10 different organizations that operate under the DeStefano’s Task Force on AIDS.

“More than anything, we want people to get out there and talk about AIDS as an issue, especially because Yale students can tend to forget about it,” he said. “We also connect a lot of these New Haven AIDS organizations with students who might want to volunteer, so the walk is also about advocacy and letting people know how they can get involved with the fight.”

Madhavan said most major urban areas sponsor annual AIDS walks, but New Haven had lacked funding and organizational manpower until last year.

In addition to the New Haven AIDS Walk taking place next month, Dale said Leeway is hosting its biggest fund-raising event — its fifth annual Academy Awards gala at Criterion Cinemas — this Sunday, and a team of Yale professors from the School of Epidemiology and Public Health is organizing a trip to Ethiopia to assess the need for better AIDS care in government medical facilities.

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