As Pride Foundation celebrates 30 years of serving the LGBTQ community, we are happy to share this notable milestone with our grantee partner, Blue Mountain Heart to Heart. Both organizations were founded at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and to this day continue to share a commitment to supporting HIV/AIDS prevention, education, and services.
Blue Mountain Heart to Heart (BMH2H) was founded in 1985, when over a dozen Walla Walla residents noticed a growing need to support those who were HIV-positive or living with AIDS in Walla Walla and Columbia counties. The organization provides compassionate care and assistance to individuals living with HIV/AIDS, as well as offering HIV-prevention outreach, education, and testing to LGBTQ individuals living in the rural areas of Walla Walla, College Place, Dayton, Waitsburg, Pasco, and Kennewick in Washington, as well as Milton-Freewater and Pendleton in Oregon.
By advocating for people living with AIDS, offering treatment and hospice care, and providing resources to other services and education, BMH2H helps prolong lives and decrease stigma. Annually, the organization performs more than 250 HIV tests, speaks to over 2,000 people about how to minimize the risk of HIV, and keeps HIV and hepatitis C controlled by offering more than 110,000 syringes through its syringe exchange program.
The population BMH2H serves includes many people that are facing multiple challenges, including mental health struggles, chemical dependency, and long-term poverty.
“We also support many individuals who identify as LGBTQ and face some level of hostility,” said Everett Maroon, the Executive Director of BMH2H. “This gets in the way of HIV prevention education, access to healthcare, and stable housing.”
Given that BMH2H is working in a rural community serving many high-risk populations, scarcity of resources is a constant struggle. Consumers often need to leave the area in order to receive components of their medical care, including orthopedic surgery and visits to an HIV specialist.
Everett shared, “There’s no reason a virally suppressed person should be proscribed for a surgical procedure. I put our resources and providers into one of three categories: unfriendly toward people living with AIDS (PLWA), friendly toward PLWA but untrained/not culturally competent, and culturally competent with PLWA. We’ve learned where the strong resources are—now we need to move into training the middle group and grow those resources. We may never have an HIV specialist in Walla Walla, though we can train the infectious disease physicians in Tri-Cities on working with PLWA and gay-identified people so that their medical advice isn’t laced with heteronormative assumptions. Moreover, many health care and mental health professionals in the area are working from a very antiquated notion of HIV and AIDS.”
To address this, BMH2H is providing training to other organizations and providers, and Everett is also working with a board member to line-up incentives to encourage professionals to help lead the trainings.
In addition, the organization often speaks at public events about HIV, to, in Everett’s words “raise people’s consciousness in the broader community.”
Since receiving a grant from Pride Foundation, BMH2H continues to broaden their outreach area for delivering HIV testing and education.
“We cover nearly 5,000 square miles in our outreach area at this point, working specifically with underserved populations like Latino farmworkers and Native Americans, who have multiple barriers to testing and prevention education,” said Everett. “A couple of years ago, we were told that there are no gay Native Americans on the reservation. Acknowledging this concern, we respectfully said we’d like to do outreach in that area anyway. I didn’t need him to agree with me on the point, I just needed permission to do the work. We talked to more than 1,300 people in the field last year. When we talk about reaching migrant farmers, we’re really talking about a new group of people every year, so the message may be a repetition for us, but it’s often brand new to our audience, and we have to find a way to broach a difficult conversation topic in a way that others can hear.”
As funding for HIV/AIDS work continues to shift, Pride Foundation’s investment in the organization is more important than ever.
“We no longer receive outreach support from the Department of Health (DOH), as it is focusing those dollars on the I-5 corridor between Seattle and Vancouver,” Everett explained. “Last year we logged nearly 4,000 miles on our vehicles just on outreach, handing out 15,000 condoms, doing more than 160 HIV tests, and educating hundreds of people—many of whom told us they had never discussed HIV or their sexual risk behavior before. BMH2H does work nobody else in our area is offering. We couldn’t do it without Pride Foundation’s support.”
As both Blue Mountain Heart to Heart and Pride Foundation celebrate their 30th year, I asked Everett about some of the big picture changes he has seen in the past three decades and what he envisions the work will look like moving forward.
“A few days ago I found a stack of old folders that were dated in the early 1990s, right as we began operations, and they were heartbreaking,” he replied. “‘Homeless, but not expected to leave the hospital,’ ‘Client is gay, but afraid to tell his wife about that or his HIV,’ ‘Run out of my house in North Carolina and found out my uncle in Seattle didn’t want me either so now I’m here,’ these are all from another era in HIV history but they still resonate today. We’ve shifted from caring for people at the end of their lives to helping them manage a chronic condition, while today’s health policy makers ask why so much money still goes toward HIV research.”
Everett reflected, “It’s easy for people in the mainstream to forget that every dollar we spend on HIV came from the labor and lives of HIV activists who fought for simple recognition that there was a crisis in America. They fought so that we would even acknowledge their suffering. As I look forward, I see that we need to remember their fight and repeat their messages because the newest generation needs to appreciate the risk that HIV still represents. It’s a lot of work to retain our history and continue to move forward, but it’s certainly work worth doing, and we know it’s still relevant thirty years later. Therefore, we continue to target current at-risk groups, and hone our message to them. My board and I are working hard to expand our public health mission and do our medical case management for new vulnerable communities, but we will always have a focus on people who live with and are affected by HIV.”
BMH2H receives many anxious people in the office for HIV testing, often after a breakup or revelation that their partner has been unfaithful. Everett recounted a story about a woman who attended their clinic last summer and seemed particularly nervous. After asking her some questions, Everett worried she was in an abusive relationship, and let her know that the building had counselors upstairs.
The woman politely declined, and Everett replied, “I just want to tell you that you don’t deserve this no matter what he says.”
After they completed the test, the woman thanked him and left. Three months later, she came back to BMH2H, looking physically well and happy.
When Everett asked her what she needed, she replied, “Nothing, I just wanted to tell you that your words kept banging around in my head. I couldn’t stop hearing what you said and I broke up with that guy. I’m using [heroin] a lot less now, I’m in a nursing program, and I’m getting more visitation with my son. I just wanted to thank you for caring enough to tell me that.”
He smiled as he recounted the story, reflecting, “We may not know on a daily basis what our work means for others, but I suspect that if we focus on lifting others up, we will.”
Gunner Scott is Pride Foundation’s Director of Programs. Email Gunner.