On Sept. 28, Test Positive Awareness Network, or TPAN, will celebrate 30 years of supporting those affected by HIV/AIDS. Merrill Kenna, the organization's director of development, spoke with Windy City Times about the celebration as well as the organization's past, present and hopes for the future.
TPAN, which began as a grassroots movement, was founded by Chris Clason in 1987 to provide information and support for those with HIV/AIDS. Thirty years ago, there were very few organizations that offered services, and because there was no medication available to help those with HIV/AIDS, Kenna said there was "no real hope."
Then TPAN came along to support those in Chicago who could not find support anywhere else. What began as a meeting in Clason's living room is now a full-fledged organization co-located with Howard Brown Health, providing mental-health counseling, case management, housing assistance, medical care and more. All of TPAN's services are also free.
The fact that TPAN shares a space with Howard Brown is a huge advantage. Clients can come in to receive services from both organizations at once, and beyond that, they rely on each other's expertise to provide full-fledged support of their clients. "A youth can come in off the street and get all their mental health and stabilizing needs met like housing and transportation and food from us and then can go down the hallway and see their primary physician," Kenna explained.
Beyond that, they are able to support each other in more dire situations. "We've had a lot of crises, where someone gets tested positive at Howard Brown and becomes suicidal," said Kenna. "So Howard Brown then refers them to TPAN, and we have licensed clinical staff here and can immediately go down and do crisis intervention, so it's a really great relationship."
Kenna feels that one of TPAN's greatest accomplishments has been its ability to remain true to its roots as a grassroots movement. "We don't talk about ourselves a lot," he said, "We just do the work."
Among some of TPAN's most recent achievements is a grant for $2.5 million that will help the organization focus specifically on helping both African-American youth and African-American men over 30 years old.
Recently, TPAN also opened a youth center ( at www.tpan.com/client-services/youth ), where youth are invited to come and do laundry, use computers, obtain snacks and toiletries, and relax. "Here they can find a safe place, a warm place, and a place that's welcoming," Kenna said.
One large facet of TPAN's mission is empowerment. Kenna explained that the organization never wants to make decisions for its clients, but rather help them feel confident in making decisions for themselves.
"We don't tell our clients what they need to do," he said. "We work with them in helping them to determine what needs to be done." He emphasized that TPAN is a sex-positive, judgment-free place where anyone can come for help, support and services.
The 30th-anniversary celebration, of which Kenna is in charge, will take place at Moonlight Studios in Chicago. Between 300 and 400 people are expected. Throughout the evening, the organization's founding members will be honored, along with a very special group of women who the organization refers to as 'angels.'
"During the early days of HIV there were no medications," Kenna explained, "And [the angels] provided things like massages, and they did yoga, and they hugged somebody. Many people were afraid to even touch someone with HIV."
Peter Staley, an HIV/AIDS activist who has been involved in the fight from the very beginning, will be the keynote speaker. At the event, TPAN will also be creating its own memorial quilt to hopefully add to the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in Atlanta. "People who attend the event will have an opportunity to write something on the quilt about someone who was near and dear to them," said Kenna.
As TPAN looks toward the future, Kenna said a new challenge they will begin to tackle is the fact that many of those living with HIV/AIDS are getting older and dealing with their conditions in addition to the typical ailments associated with aging.
Something Kenna emphasized is still at the forefront of the fight against HIV/AIDS: battling the stigma associated with those who have been diagnosed. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic first began, he explained, there was so much fear around those with a positive diagnosis, even in the gay community. People refused to touch those with HIV/AIDS and, sometimes, they were not even allowed to receive visitors to their hospital rooms. While some of that fear has been alleviated, Kenna does not want the community to forget that it definitely still exists and still must be resisted.
"I do think that end point of stigma and discrimination is really important," he said, "That we recognize it still exists 30 years later."
TPAN is working to fight against this stigma with education and raising awareness, and of course through continued support of its clients.
Test Positive Aware Network will commemorate its 30th anniversary with a celebration event on Thursday, Sept. 28. "TPAN 30 Years of Hope" will be held at Moonlight Studios, 1446 W. Kinzie St. The event will begin with a VIP reception at 6-7 p.m., allowing supporters to meet and greet with TPAN's founding members. The general reception will begin at 7 p.m. and feature a tribute to TPAN's founders, an open bar, hors d'oeuvres and music from Marc "DJ Moose" Moder.
Peter Staleyan early member of ACT UP, the New York-based direct action activism groupwill address the crowd. Staley was featured prominently in the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague. Admission is $125-$175 each; visit TPAN.com/tickets .