For decades, Erie Family Health Center has provided help in a variety of medical, social, and cultural areas for Chicago's citizens. There are branches of the center in different neighborhoods, including a teen-centered facility at 1523 W. Chicago. However, the facility in Humboldt Park is distinct in that it houses The Lending Hands for Life program.
Lending Hands for Life is Erie's bilingual HIV awareness, prevention, treatment and care services program. Among the services it provides are case management, behavioral health screening, substance abuse treatment and nutritional screening.
If people have not heard of the 15-year-old program, that is not surprising to some. Jarret Thompson, Lending Hands's director, said that it has only had the name for a couple of months. Before the facility's consumer advisory council changed the title, it was simply known as the HIV Program, a nondescript ( and decidedly non-confidential ) moniker. 'I was very concerned with making sure our clientele had its confidentiality kept intact,' Thompson said. 'Also, a lot of clients didn't want 'HIV, HIV, HIV' thrown in their faces every day.'
Thompson describes the program's mission as 'providing high-quality care to the Humboldt Park and West Town communities.' However, something that sets Lending Hands ( and Erie ) apart from many other agencies and centers is that people can receive the proper care regardless of their ability to pay. 'We work with our patients to make sure that we investigate every possible venue for them to secure either insurance or [ some other form of ] assistance,' Thompson stated.
About 150 clients ( a number that has increased in the past few months ) seek services through three case managers, Thompson added. Two of the managers are Ryan White case managers while the other is with the Department of Rehab Services. When asked if the increased case load is good or bad news, Thompson sees the glass as half-full and half-empty: 'It's good news to Erie and the community that we're able to meet the needs of the community. It's bad in the sense that HIV rates continue to climb in the West Town and Humboldt Park neighborhoods.'
The director does not view complacency as a local problem so much as a national one: 'I'm not sure I see complacency within the Latino community or with our clientele. As a nation, we've slipped into 'Even if I do become HIV-positive, I can just take a pill and be OK.' We're seeing a new generation of folks becoming infected because they didn't see the devastating effects on our communities back in the early '80s.'
For Pamela McGee, working at Lending Hands is 'a human-rights issue.' She added that 'when you look at the numbers and see this invisible population, [ I ] realize that we have not made enough noise that there is help available. People are concerned about terrorism, but look how many lives are affected here. We must fight the good fight—and Erie has been on the battlefield. We've also created a barrier-friendly environment for the patient; this is a one-stop service so all of [ a client's ] needs can be met.'
The diversity of the staff's positions reflect McGee's 'one-stop service' theory, with everyone from drug counselors to nutritionists on board. Margarita Nagy, a dietician, said: 'Some symptoms can be improved by learning how to eat or by taking vitamin supplements. I work with each patient to adjust the diet; usually, the change is gradual.'
The Lending Hands staff contends that the compassion for the clientele and their passion for helping combine to create an environment with comfort that is palpable. For instance, Thompson loves assisting the clients. 'One of the biggest benefits to working here is being able to help people get better and to get them to understand that health is not just the absence of disease but the promotion of wellness,' he said.
Lending Hands for Life is located at 2750 W. North; the number is ( 312 ) 432-7352.