The past year and a half has been stressful and full of concern. People have been focusing on staying healthy and looking out for various signs and symptoms of a virus that is constantly being discussed. However, there is another type of virus plaguing the country, and more specifically our city, that is not focused on enough.
HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system and, if left untreated, can result in AIDS. HIV is primarily spread through sexual contact and sharing needles or syringes. It presently has no cure but can be treated to slow the virus’s progress through the body. Since the epidemic in the 1980s, over 1 million people have contracted HIV, about 13% do not even know they have it. According to HIV Care Now’s statistics from 2019, Duval County ranked in the top five for highest number of diagnosed HIV cases in Florida.
There are many organizations that provide support for those living with HIV/AIDS, but one particular organization has done so unlike any other in Jacksonville. Northeast Florida AIDS Network (NFAN) was founded in 1989 after a study determined there was a rapidly growing rate of HIV/AIDS cases in Northeast Florida. Since then, NFAN has provided countless resources for those living with HIV and AIDS in the community, while working to educate residents about the spread of HIV, offering care and support for individuals living with HIV/AIDS and their families, and advocating for those in need of resources.
According to Executive Director Donna Fuchs, NFAN is “the only 100% true AIDS service organization in Jacksonville.” NFAN focuses solely on HIV/AIDS services and resources, providing things like medical case management, health insurance premium and co-pay assistance, housing assistance, a food pantry and even a program to assist clients with the needs of their pets.
In an effort to provide all the necessary resources they can, NFAN receives funding through federal grants for medical case management and housing through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
When she wears her NFAN shirt with its red ribbon associated with raising awareness of HIV/AIDS, Fuchs gets a variety of responses. Some talk to her about their personal experience with HIV/AIDS, but others simply look at her with hesitation and concern. She said the stigma of having HIV/AIDS is “still so thick, more than 30 years later.”
Stereotypes and misinformation can cause issues for individuals with HIV/AIDS in need of assistance, Fuchs added. NFAN helps fill those gaps by offering resources for medicine, housing and other life necessities. The agency provides food to those in need of their services through the Mary H. Lewis Food Pantry. In the 1980s Lewis, a mother of two who operated a successful daycare center, was hospitalized and tested positive for HIV. After losing her livelihood when her child care license was revoked, she was referred to NFAN where she suggested creating a food pantry.
“Here in Jacksonville we have a very high food insecurity percentage, especially with our clients,” said Jessica Kloke, NFAN special programs manager. “We have many clients who will go days without eating because they have to make a decision on paying rent or utilities or feeding their family.” According to Kloke, who volunteered with the agency before joining the staff, NFAN’s nutrition program is very important due to the necessity of those living with HIV/AIDS to eat healthy. Since its inception, the Mary H. Lewis Food Pantry has expanded considerably and now also offers healthy, fully-prepared meals provided by the UNF Food Fighters. It is funded, in part by proceeds from Dining Out for Life.
NFAN’s Dining Out For Life event is part of a national campaign and is typically held in April. (Due to COVID-19, this year’s fundraiser will take place August 26, 2021.) For 16 years, NFAN has hosted the one-day benefit made possible by local restaurants that agree to donate a percentage of that day’s sales to NFAN. In addition to raising funds for the food pantry, the event promotes local businesses that participate.
And all it takes to support the event, according to Stephen Jones, NFAN’s director of development and intake specialist, is eating at a participating restaurant. This year’s event features nearly 20 including Biscottis, The Bread & Board, European Street Cafe, Hamburger Mary’s and Orsay.
Visit nfanjax.org for more information NFAN and Dining Out for Life/participating restaurants.