AIDS awareness group steps down for better service

AIDS awareness group steps down for better service
By: Carly O'Keefe
Jackson County, IL - It was a tearful end to an era Monday night in Jackson County. The Southern Illinois Regional Efforts for AIDS group or SIREA passed the torch of AIDS awareness and assistance to the Jackson County health department's HIV care consortium.
It's not because the AIDS epidemic is no longer an issue in southern Illinois, but because of two decades of hard work and dedication, SIREA feels its mission is now better accomplished through the Jackson county health department.
Monday night an appreciation ceremony was held at the Jackson County Health Department where SIREA members thought back to the early days of AIDS.
"At that point, there was no one, it was just SIREA. They just had nowhere to turn to, absolutely no where," said SIREA President Ricky Widlow.
Widlow has been with the group since its inception in 1986. That was four years after he learned he was HIV positive. Widlow was among a handful of other folks who devoted themselves to helping others when no one else would, or could.
"We all got together and said, okay, we have some financial resources, lets raise some funding and let's help these people because there's no one in the area to help," said Widlow.
Over the past two decades, SIREA members successfully lobbied for government assistance and raised money to fill in the gaps in service. Now those with HIV can find the same services in Jackson County as they would in a major metropolitan area.
"The voices of the grassroots people were very much needed to get the programs up and going and to insist upon the services being made available. They're now available because of those voices," said Steven St. Julian, a SIREA member and Jackson County Health Department Coordinator of HIV Prevention and Outreach.
St. Julian says the group has helped him tremendously in his own battle with HIV.
"When I was at my sickest, I was knocking on death's door. But I was still coming to the SIREA meetings, and the SIREA people told me to hang in there... that kind of encouragement is priceless," said St. Julian.
Now, SIREA will disband, having accomplished what they set out to do. The services they fought for are in place, and the people they sought to help are being helped.
"They serve as a stunning example of what a few people can do and the power of a few voices to speak out for something that matters, without fear of stigma, without fear of local prejudice, to say this matters, and I'm going to make it happen," said St. Julian.
Case management was taken over by the Jackson County HIV Care Consortium a few years ago. SIREA will now hand over its emergency financial assistance program and its annual AIDS Walk fund raising efforts.