Betty Smith had been working as a respiratory therapist in a local hospital when the AIDS epidemic hit. It was called gay-related immune deficiency ( GRID ) at the time, but from Smith's experience, the disease didn't care about sexual orientation.
Straight male intravenous drug users were hit hardest in her South Side neighborhood, and Smith realized it was only a matter of time before the mysterious, fast-moving illness claimed women and children too.
Few people were paying attention to the African-American communities on Chicago's South Side, Smith said. Moreover, those who did pay attention didn't show much compassion.
Smith recounts one particularly upsetting experience. An AIDS patient at her hospital had requested a minister to perform last rites, but when the minister arrived, he refused to go anywhere near the dying man.
"He was gowned up. Masked up. Gloved up," Smith told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004. "He was a minister, but he stayed outside of the room and talked to the man through a doorway."
Tired of seeing patients ignored or treated like pariahs, Smith quit her job and launched the South Side Help Center ( SSHC ) in 1987. In addition to offering HIV testing, education and outreach programs, the family-run nonprofit boasts myriad community-based operations, such as youth mentoring and substance abuse counseling.
Smith's goal was simple: To give her community the help it deserved.
Her first stops were African-American churches.
"Targeting the churches was not necessarily out of religiosity," said Creola Hampton, a longtime SSHC employee, "but because of the impact the church has in African-American communities. People listen to the church, and if the church won't help, then who's going to bring attention to this disease and get us the kind of care that we need?"
Most ministers were hesitant at first. They argued that AIDS was a sinful disease; it was too steeped in sex and stigma to broach in church. Not one to be deterred, Smith shrugged off the rejection and turned to the minister's wives.
"She made it personal and talked to them about how this could possibly impact your family, your sons and daughters," said Betty's daughter Vanessa Smith.
Slowly but surely, the "first wives," as Vanessa called them, convinced their husbands to let Betty share her message. The SSHC team began speaking at Sunday school meetings, spreading the word at church dinners, and offering regular testing and referral services.
"I found [ churches ] to be very receptive, contrary to what the news media was saying about the religious community," Betty told Windy City Times. "We had some really large congregations get involved. Trinity and United Church of Christ were the first ones, then Sweet Holy Spirit [ and ] Beth Eden Baptist."
Smith's husband, Vannish, a sharp insurance salesman, stepped in to spearhead fundraising efforts and became the SSHC's first chairman of the board. The couple's daughters, Valerie and Vanessa, volunteered with administrative and outreach efforts.
By 1990, the fledgling nonprofit had received its first grant ( from the Chicago Department of Public Health ) and set up offices at 112th and State streets. Although things were going well, Betty and her daughters still needed to work full-time to make ends meet.
"You know, when you're in your 20s, you have lots of energy," Vanessa said with a laugh. "We had purpose. We were driven to really educate our community because we saw the devastation."
Not long after setting up its offices, the South Side Help Center fell victim to constant break-ins and vandalism at the hands of local youth.
"We brought them in and said, 'OK, what's going on? Why are you breaking into our organization?'" Vanessa said. "They looked at us and said, 'Well, we need something to do. What are you going to do for us?'"
What they did, Vanessa said, was launch an after-school program. Neighborhood teens received free snacks and tutoring servicesnot to mention a healthy dose of HIV/AIDS educationand Vanessa found her calling working with youth.
She signed on as a full-time SSHC employee and began visiting local schools, where she spoke openly and honestly about safe sex. Vanessa trained student volunteers to share information and condoms with their peers who were uncomfortable talking to adults.
"It's always been an organization that goes to where the people arewhether it's at the church, or in the schools, or on the streets," Hampton said. "It's about going where people are to give them information because they're not coming here. They're not going to social services or the clinics. They're not going where they're supposed to."
In 1995, the South Side Help Center hired Harold Cherry full-time. The energetic prevention specialist, often called a "ghetto preacher" or "street preacher," was known for his ability to reach 'street' communities such as intravenous drug users or would-be gang members.
Dressed in jeans and wearing earrings and a ponytail, Cherry was able to blend into neighborhoods most outreach specialists wouldn't set foot in. He often brought with him vibrant display boards decorated with graffiti-style spray paint, bright photos and magazine clippings.
"I used to go out and give out literature," Cherry said. "I'd come back 15 minutes later, and it'd all be on the ground… I had to think: What am I going to say to you to make you pay attention to me, to keep you engaged? What are you going to remember when you walk away from me?"
Although he always talked about prevention and testing, Cherry changed his delivery method daily to keep audiences engaged.
The organization's continual push to reach people in their neighborhoods, at their levels, has kept SSHC alive and strong for more than two decades. It received its first federal grant in 1997 and reached a budget of about $300,000 that same year.
In 1998, the Smith family experienced a crushing blow when Valerie Smith-Reid, who had worked alongside her parents and sister since Day 1, died of breast cancer. The family established a merit-based scholarship in her honor.
"We grieved," Vanessa told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004, "but because so many people are depending upon us, we had to continue to work.
Today, the organization boasts more than 30 programs, a $2.3 million budget and 31 staffers at three locations. It regularly tweaks programs and shifts funds to meet the community's ever-evolving needs.
Cherry continues to lead street outreach efforts, which now include regular visits to community barbershops and beauty salons. Youth programs have grown to include mentoring and several leadership initiatives, and women have become a focal point with gender-specific counseling options.
Vanessa Smith has acted as executive director since 2007, when her mother retired to take care of her ill husband. Betty still stops by daily, and has an active presence.
One of SSHC's main initiatives as it moves forward is capacity building, or helping younger organizations stay strong during tough economic times. SSHC employees regularly travel across the country to share organizational strategies and lessons learned.
"We know what it's like to worry about making payroll, having to keep the lights on," said Pamela Tassin, director of capacity building. "If you look at South Side Help Center, the diversification of funding has allowed us to be able to survive when a lot of organizations were closing their doors. It kind of begs the question: What did we do right?"
With a dwindling funding pool, Tassin said, many organizations wouldn't dream of helping their 'competitors.' But that's not what the South Side Help Center is about.
"We always assisted other organizations with things like getting their books in order, helping to identify key people for their staff or addressing HR issues," said Vanessa, who's frequently been called 'the collaboration queen' by staffers. "We've always been open and willing to help other organizations."
By creating a nationwide network of shared resources and common goalsinstead of viewing each other as competitionVanessa believes the country will be able to fight back against AIDS faster and more effectively.
"I don't think, Betty, when she started this organization, thought it would last this long," Hampton said. "I don't think any of us did. We thought there would be a cure by now. We're not in this industry to stay long."
See www.southsidehelp.org .
This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.