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Aide for AIDS

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Nonprofit founder marks 20 years helping people with HIV.

By Ret Boney

In 1985, Al Roberts started a group to help care for people with HIV and AIDS until a vaccine could be developed.

Two decades later, the California-based AIDS Services Foundation Orange County celebrates its 20th anniversary, continuing to care for the sick while hope for a vaccine dims.

“I thought at the worst case, it would be three to five years,” says Roberts, founder and board president since the group’s inception.  “Then five years went by and 10 years.  If they haven’t done something in 20 years, the likelihood of getting a vaccine is nil.”

Now, the group has a budget of $6 million, more than 700 volunteers and a staff of 66, including nurses, mental health workers, drivers and others who provide support and services for some 1,200 people each year who are touched by the virus.

“It’s a great organization that helps men, women and children that are infected or affected by AIDS,” says Roberts.  “Sometimes the latter is as important as the former.  It’s such a great organization in that respect.”

                                   Al Roberts

Job: Manages his investments; board president, AIDS Services Foundation Orange County, Irvine, Calif.

Born: Birmingham, Mich.

Family: Partner, Ken Jillson

Hobbies: Powerboating, sailing, yoga, kayaking, travel

Favorite destination: Preserves of Kenya

Favorite city: London

Inspiration: Father, Edmond Roberts: “I not only dug the trenches for him for the houses he was building, but he gave me that same foundation for my life.”

The foundation provides a wide range of services, including home care, transportation to and from medical appointments, emergency financial assistance, a food pantry, psychological services, prevention education and efforts to affect public policy to benefit the disease’s victims.

But the foundation, which receives more than half its funding from the federal government, steadfastly works to be about the people it serves, leaving politics out of the mix.

“That’s the way it was set up 20 years ago,” says Roberts.  “It helps everybody.  There are no agendas – we’re blind to anything except helping people with HIV.  It isn’t a political organization.”

Roberts, who grew up in a small town in Michigan, enlisted in the army straight out of high school, headed for California’s warmer weather when he got out, and joined a pharmaceutical company as the mail boy while he bought and sold property on the side.

He later started a company that made gift-wrap and decorative bags, a job that led him to travel through all the major U.S. cities during the early 1980s, before the disease had been defined and labeled.

During that time, he noticed that salesmen were becoming sick and dying as the epidemic spread, and a doctor friend encouraged him to do something to help.

So he gathered some people in his living room, planned a party at his newly installed pool, raised $30,000, and started the AIDS Services Foundation.

Today, the pool party has become Splash, an annual fundraising event hosting about 700 people at the festival grounds in Laguna and bringing in about $400,000 dollars.

That plus AIDS Walk and Art for AIDS, two additional annual fundraisers, and the Patron’s Council, made up of major donors to the foundation, bring in the bulk of the group’s non-government funding, a source that may have to increase, says Roberts.

“We are flat-funded by the government,” he says.  “Which basically is less funding because everything else goes up.  We have to make it up or we have to limit criteria.  Some people who are HIV positive don’t need ASF yet, so we just take them off the list until they need help.”

Roberts says the biggest challenge now is overcoming complacency, both from the younger generation, which sees itself as invincible, and from the general public that believes the development of drug “cocktails” make it possible to live with the disease, but which Roberts says only delay death, and often cause death over time from their own toxicity.

His hope for the future is that we can begin to address quality of life issues, perhaps finding medications and treatments that “level the playing field,” allowing people to cope with what he calls the “psychological devastation” of an HIV diagnosis and continue productive work and social lives.

But two decades on the frontlines have taken their toll and Roberts plans to step down in the near future as the foundation’s board president.

“It’s getting to me now,” he says.  “A good friend of mine just passed away.  I can’t speak at anything anymore.  It’s just sad.”

But when he steps aside, he will leave a legacy of hope and a tradition of help in his wake, marks of a true philanthropist.

“It was more out of necessity than anything else,” he says of his contributions.  “No one was doing anything for these people.  It is my duty.  I should have done it and I did it.”

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