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The History of Regional HIV/AIDS Connection (formerly AIDS Committee of London)
The AIDS Committee of London (ACOL) began in the spring of 1985 when several members of the gay and lesbian community in London mobilized to address the issues raised by HIV/AIDS in the city. Sponsored and housed by the Homophile Association of London Ontario (HALO), this group of volunteers identified two main areas of work to be done:
- Providing emotional support and practical assistance to people living with HIV and their immediate family members
- Providing education that would give people (mainly gay men) the information they needed to prevent HIV transmission and engender a more open and compassionate attitude in the larger community for those concerned about HIV/AIDS.
For the next couple years, the AIDS Committee of London operated as a volunteer agency with no funding, based in, and supported by, HALO. During this time the group applied for and received corporate and charitable status as a non-profit, community-based group.
At the end of 1987, the AIDS Committee of London received core funding from the Ontario Ministry of Health. This allowed us to hire staff for the first time, get an office that was accessible to the public, to co-ordinate and provide services in the community and to take on some of the larger issues raised by the growing HIV epidemic.
The Early Work
Much of the work in these earlier years continued to focus on providing support to people with HIV/AIDS and their family members (including chosen family) and prevention/education services to gay men. There was also a strong emphasis on systemic advocacy - building more supportive environments and improving services for people living with or concerned about HIV/AIDS. This included:
- Developing linkages with, and doing training in, many of the local health and human service agencies to ensure people living with HIV/AIDS were getting appropriate services.
- Advocating for and helping to establish a specialized outpatient clinic in London for people with HIV/AIDS - formerly known as the HIV Care Programme, now called Infectious Diseases Care Program at St. Joseph's Health Care in London, Ontario.
- Working for the legalization of anonymous HIV testing in the province and establishing a local anonymous testing site known as Options Clinic.
- Identifying the need for and raising start-up funds for a hospice for people with AIDS - John Gordon Home.
- Addressing issues of systemic oppression of gay/lesbian people that prevented (and still prevents) many people from being full and equal members of our society with the personal and social resources to address the issues raised by HIV/AIDS in their lives.
The Crisis Changes
As the AIDS Committee of London progressed into the 1990s, we began to address the issues being raised by the changing nature of the epidemic. Already, women, drug users, heterosexual men and people from different ethno-cultural backgrounds were getting HIV and some of them were coming to ACOL for services. By the early 90s, AIDS was no longer a gay men's disease.
In 1992, the AIDS Committee of London in conjunction with Middlesex London Health Unit established the Counterpoint Needle Exchange program. Over the course of the next ten years, Counterpoint grew to include several fixed site needle exchanges, street outreach services and a low-threshold methadone program. New linkages and partnerships were developed in the community to better serve the needs of people who use drugs, including generally better access to all services in the city.
HIV/AIDS at the Margins of Society
In the last decade it has become clear HIV/AIDS has the most impact among people living on the fringes of society; people who typically don't have full access to the rights and services many of us take for granted. This includes people living in or on the edge of poverty, women, street youth and other people who are street-identified, people from different ethno-cultural backgrounds, including aboriginal people, drug users and still people in the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) community.
The Challenge Today
The challenge for AIDS service organizations, including Regional HIV/AIDS Connection, in the years to come is to provide relevant and accessible HIV-specific services to everyone living with or concerned about HIV, and to work toward a more just and compassionate society in which all people have equal rights and access to the services.
Over the past decade the hepatitis c virus (HCV) has been identified across the province as a growing health issue. Regional HIV/AIDS Connection (RHAC) along with many other AIDS service organizations in Ontario is expanding its response to the call for action to address the health and social needs of individuals impacted by HCV.
While people might think this is a new undertaking for RHAC, in truth, we have been delivering HCV services and providing support to clients co-infected with HIV and HCV for many years.
Epidemiological reporting indicates that HCV is a significant risk issue for individuals who inject drugs. Our hepatitis c services, including education, prevention and materials distribution, have naturally occurred through our needle & syringe program, which has been in existence for nearly 20 years, funded by the Middlesex London Health Unit.
It is estimated that well over 60% of individuals who access the Counterpoint Needle & Syringe Program are living with HCV. Our harm reduction philosophy ensures we meet clients “where they are at” with each contact. This often includes addressing issues related to HCV.
To formally acknowledge hepatitis C virus in our expanded service delivery mandate, Regional HIV/AIDS Connection’s Board of Directors articulated a new mission statement in December 2009:
“We are a community-inspired organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for individuals and diverse communities living with, at-risk for or affected by the challenges associated with HIV/AIDS.”
The phrase “…associated with HIV/AIDS” opens the door for RHAC to be responsive to the needs of the diverse populations we serve.
It is important to note that HIV/AIDS continues to be our core mandate. This is strongly reflected in our new name, Regional HIV/AIDS Connection.
We will continue to address HIV/AIDS prevention, education, advocacy and support until stigma is eradicated and a cure is found. RHAC is committed to working with local, provincial and federal health initiatives to ensure we are effectively serving our agency’s mission on both fronts. Our HIV/AIDS programming will remain strong while concurrently building our HCV programming as funding and resources become available.
25 Years Later
In 2010, AIDS Committee of London (ACOL) commemorated its 25 year anniversary doing HIV/AIDS work in London. To reflect the agency’s expanded service delivery mandate into the six counties of Perth, Huron, Oxford, Elgin, Lambton and Middlesex in Southwestern Ontario, ACOL went through a re-naming and re-branding process. As of January 1, 2011 the agency has been known as Regional HIV/AIDS Connection.