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Hinde reflects as she prepares to exit Heartland Health
by Matt Simonette

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Debbie Hinde, chief development officer for Heartland Health Outreach ( HHO ), remembers that people "were in fighting mode" in 1996, when she first went to work for Open Hand Chicago, the food-delivery organization for persons with HIV/AIDS that would, years later, merge into HHO.

"The sense of urgency around AIDS at that time was still extremely strong," Hinde said. "There were still many people dying. The system wasn't strong and they weren't able to serve people in all corners of the city. Everybody was hoping for progress, but no one knew how much progress there was going to be, nor how fast it would come."

Hinde will be leaving her position at the end of June. Her job was eliminated as the result of development and communications functions being combined at HHO's central office.

In a statement to Windy City Times, Ed Stellon, executive director of HHO, said, "For the past 20 years, Debbie Hinde has played a critical role in the evolution of the program, as its CEO from 1996 until 2011. Under her leadership, Open Hand Chicago merged with Community Response and the HIV Coalition to create a metropolitan, multi-service organization—Vital Bridges. In 2011, Vital Bridges merged into HHO, greatly expanding our HIV services. Debbie also has had great impact inside HHO, creating and implementing our strategic and annual planning process, expanding internal and external communications, building management capacity and more."

Hinde said, "I've been here for 20 years so I've seen a lot of change, certainly in the services we've delivered but also in the needs of people with HIV. It's kind of all for the good, because people are able to—for the most part—get good treatment so they can manage their disease, so they can move forward with their lives."

When she took over as CEO at Open Hand Chicago in 1996, the organization was in deep financial trouble. "It was highly volunteer-driven with a small-but-mighty staff," she recalled. "At that point, it was having some fairly serious financial problems that needed to be addressed quickly. But the heart of the organization, at its foundation, was really strong, as was the community's commitment to it."

It took about a year to improve the organization's fortunes, Hinde added. "It also took the good will of a lot of people and volunteers. We needed to raise more money, work with folks we owed money to, and put our house in order about what we were doing, what money we were spending and how many staff we had. Everybody rolled up their sleeves and got to it."

Her current job was created for her at the time of the last merger. Hinde described her position as being two-pronged: "One side was fundraising, marketing and communications. The other was to help build the culture and infrastructure of Heartland Health Outreach—things like internal communications, staff meetings, strategic and annual planning, and working with strategic leadership team to get beyond 'day-to-day' planning."

She said she's proud to have had a hand in a "really strong organization that could make and weather change. … We went from being solely a food organization to merging two organizations in order to integrate services like case management, housing and mental health in one place at one time for participants. That merger went well. As we went on, it made sense to merge into something with healthcare. And hence, the move to integrate with Heartland Health Outreach, which has HIV-specialty care."

Hinde said she was not sure where she'd end up next, but assumed it would be with a non-profit, and hoped it would be one that addressed food and nutrition issues.

"Being able to participate in an organization that's provided nearly 15 million meals and several hundred thousand hours of counseling is an honor," she said. "People have worked hard to make that possible."

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