HIV/AIDS Organization Spotlight: Saint Louis Effort for AIDS

Saint Louis Effort for AIDS

In's HIV/AIDS Organization Spotlight series, we focus on some of the true unsung heroes of the HIV community: the organizations that support and provide services for individuals living with, or at risk for, HIV. We profile some of the best in the U.S. and learn how they got started, what challenges they face and what's in store for them in the future.

This week, we turn our sights on St. Louis, Mo., and Saint Louis Effort for AIDS (EFA). According to the Missouri Department of Health, 5,186 people were living with HIV in the St. Louis region at the end of 2010. New diagnoses have steadily increased in recent years: There were 261 new diagnoses in 2009 and 300 in 2010. With this upward trend, it's important to have activists, educators and organizations leading efforts to get people into care and doing outreach to prevent new infections. recently interviewed Cheryl Oliver, the executive director of Saint Louis Effort for AIDS.

How did Saint Louis Effort for AIDS get started, and how has it changed over time?

Saint Louis Effort for AIDS was founded in 1985. It is St. Louis' oldest AIDS service organization [ASO]. Saint Louis Effort for AIDS was founded as an all-volunteer organization -- friends helping friends. The original funding for services, which included educational outreach, an informational and referral phone hotline, a buddy program and support groups, resulted from the grassroots organizing of concerned LGBT community organizers and gay bar owners. The proceeds from six drag show performances provided the initial operating budget for EFA. Throughout the following years, additional programs, services and other ASOs evolved in the St. Louis metropolitan region to address the enormous changes in medical treatment and testing for HIV.

In 1992, EFA's client services department began providing case management services for individuals infected with HIV, and in 1994, was funded as a Ryan White Title I grantee. Dining Out for Life, EFA's annual fundraising event, was first presented in St. Louis in 1993. Today, St. Louis' Dining Out is part of the international Dining Out for Life event in 59 cities in the U.S. and Canada.

Since 1997, EFA's prevention department has been providing free testing for HIV and other STDs, and in 2002, with funding from the Office of Minority Affairs, EFA was able to conduct testing, prevention education and community outreach using the region's first mobile testing unit.

How many people do you serve?

In 2010, EFA provided direct services to 6,091 individuals and indirect services to 10,366 individuals in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area. Each month, EFA provides comprehensive support services to 1,280 clients and reaches 1,250 people for testing and prevention education through community outreach activities.

What services do you provide?

Case management, which helps HIV-positive clients access the resources they need to live a more healthy life. EFA offers every level of case management provided in the state of Missouri:

  • General case management, including Spanish-speaking and co-located case management.
  • Waiver case management.
  • Transitional case management.
  • Linkage to care case management.
  • Resource & referral case management.

The BEACON Project connects with people living with HIV who have not received medical care for more than 12 months and provides them with intensive case management, ongoing peer support and creative, client-based solutions for other barriers.

Prevention services include testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, prevention activities and education in the community, as well as a mobile outreach unit.

The Care Support Team matches volunteers with a person in the community who is living with HIV/AIDS and is in need of support and services.

The Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) program provides education and services to people living with HIV/AIDS so they can keep and maintain their pet companions. Assistance includes veterinary care, food and other supplies and assistance.

What has the community response been like?

Exceptional. We provide a safe haven in an often-unwelcoming world. We do our best to let those affected by and living with HIV know that we are here, and that people with HIV can lead healthy and productive lives.

St. Louis and the surrounding communities have been immensely supportive of our efforts through the years. We are always amazed at how many new volunteers continue to find us and want to work with us, and at how much support we garner from individuals and businesses for our fundraising events.

What advice would you give somebody living with HIV who has never been to an HIV organization before?

One, your health is the best gift you can give yourself. There are benefits to taking medication and getting into care and saving your life.

Two, you do not have to go through this journey alone.

Three, we understand all the issues and barriers you're facing.

Four, do not let the word "AIDS" on our office door deter you from coming in and getting what you need.

And finally, just call us. We are here to help.

EFA first tries to identify and understand the barriers to care that are there for each person. There are perceived and real issues to dispel for everyone. We strive to help new clients and those newly diagnosed to understand that it's their main job to get engaged with HIV medical care -- to get their labs done, to know their numbers, to understand the HIV life cycle. After that we can begin to address all their needs.

As one of our case managers likes to say to people who have been out of care, "We deal with the cosmetics later. The foundation has to come first."

What is the biggest challenge that EFA faces?

There are two major challenges for EFA. The first challenge is being able to successfully reach out to the community and get past the stigma and fear that persists about HIV and AIDS. The individuals we really need to reach with our testing and our case management services are still very much afraid to step up and get tested and be treated.

The other challenge is rallying resources to increase advocating for support and the need for both HIV prevention activities and comprehensive supportive services for marginalized and vulnerable populations. We exist in a community, city and region in which HIV is affecting larger and larger numbers of people who do not have their basic life needs met, let alone resources for the management and survival of HIV.

What is the most rewarding aspect?

When we are able to help someone, through education, understand the importance of being responsible for his or her own health. The education becomes profound and that person takes ownership of the disease, ownership of their treatment, ownership of their health. When they are able to do that, a real "a-ha" moment happens for them. They become their own advocates and they become the best advocates for HIV and AIDS.

Your organization is very open about your funding sources and expenditures. Does being open about your funding help gain trust from the community?

Yes, we have to be transparent. Our financial health and funding are right there for everyone to see -- the community, board members, volunteers, stakeholders. On our website we also provide a link to our 990 [tax form]. All this provides additional information for people who may be in critical decision-making modes and may want to support our mission.

What direction is the organization moving toward?

Saint Louis Effort for AIDS has truly adopted a "Getting to Zero" mindset. We are increasing outreach on all levels. We are more focused than ever before and are targeting our efforts to reach high-risk populations and those who are out of care. Only by getting those who do not know their status tested and in treatment, and getting those who are out of care into treatment, can we envision zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.

How can people help or get involved?

Saint Louis Effort for AIDS welcomes volunteers in a variety of capacities to share your time and talents. For information on volunteering, contact the volunteer manager at 314-645-6451 ext. 227.

And donations to Saint Louis Effort for AIDS really make the difference! For any information regarding contributions, please email the director of development and finance at or call 314.645-6451.