South Side Help Center ( SSHC ), for Executive Director Vanessa Smith, has long been a family affair. Her mother, Betty, founded SSHC 30 years ago.
"She started the organization, and she enlisted her two daughters to help," Vanessa recalled. "I ran the HIV youth development program and my sister ran after-school programs. "We were both very much involved, and my dad was on the board of directors. I kind of grew up in the Center."
SSHC will celebrate its 30th-anniversary milestone with its gala, Keeping the Legacy Alive on Saturday, Sept. 30, at 5 p.m. at the Parkway Ballroom, 4455 S. Martin Luther King Dr. Among those appearing will be singers Kenny Lattimore and Maggie Brown.
"It's going to be a star-studded event," said Vanessa, laughing.
She said that she credits some of the honorees as helping ensure SSHC's longevity, such as Thresholds CEO Mark Ishaug, who "helped open the door to the Help Center starting to provide case-management services as well as housing-services when he was with AIDS Foundation of Chicago. When I became executive director, he took me under his wing and mentored me. Those types of relationships really help to sustain us and keep us viable."
The celebration, she emphasized, was geared to honoring "key relationships with colleagues and comrades in HIV/AIDS prevention."
The biggest challenge for SSHC, as with many non-profit organizations, remains securing funding. The organization's budget is now about $1.2 million, down from about $5 million some years back. SSHC now gets a good deal of funding from Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation ( AHF ), with whom it entered into a partnership about three years ago.
With that funding, "We're able to paint on a larger canvas and we're able to co-brand marketing efforts," Vanessa said. "But with the economy in a downturnand I think there's HIV 'giving-fatigue'there has been a lot that contributes to us having a really hard time the last five years. But now we're on the rebound."
The partnership with AHF allowed SSHC to expand wraparound services, Vanessa said. "I wanted an all-in-one shop for a lot of our individuals living with HIV. It seemed like a perfect opportunity."
AHF's CEO, Michael Weinstein, sometimes sparked controversy among HIV/AIDS advocates when he has spoken out against pre-exposure prophylaxis ( PrEP ) as a long-term prevention strategy. Vanessa noted that SSHC nevertheless helps clients access PrEP; she estimated about 20-30 persons utilize the intervention after SSHC referrals.
Weinstein was focused on "preserving organizations like ours," according to Vanessa, who also emphasized that, "We don't deny people PrEP. … We have a lot of patients on PrEP through the AHF clinic."
Vanessa acknowledged the challenges involved in doing healthcare and advocacy work in a part of town where resources are not as plentiful.
"We deal with major issues of stigma, homophobia, lack of access to quality healthcare, and now we have to deal with violence," she said. "Violence can deter people from getting on the bus and going to see a doctor. It really does create a 'perfect storm'we have high rates of STIs and HIV/AIDS, and now we have hepatitis and meningitis on the increase. It's difficult to find patients and encourage them to get to a doctor. We have huge obstacles we have to deal with."
The upcoming celebration will be about honoring many persons who've helped SSHC, but Vanessa still draws inspiration from her mother, Betty.
"She taught me to be humble and to be fearless, and to speak out against injustices," Vanessa said. "That was my mom. That was what it was like growing up. She would always speak out against injustices, she was always humble enough to sit down and break bread with clients."
For information on the gala, or SSHC services, visit SouthSideHelp.org .