AIDS Resource director celebrates 20 years with organization
For Kirsten Burkhart, executive director of AIDS Resource for the past 20 years, the fight against AIDS was important in her life before she ever became a part of the organization.
“I had a friend who died from AIDS-related causes and I was appalled at the way his family treated him,” said Burkhart. “He was an important member of the family until he got sick and then they really kind of turned their backs on him… So HIV has always really been close to my heart.”
Becoming executive director of the AIDS Resource was a new venture for Burkhart at the time, but one that she says sounded too good to pass up.
“I didn’t have any non-profit experience when I started here. I was running basketball camps,” she said. “But, I saw that AIDS Resource was looking for a director and I thought, ‘That sounds kind of awesome,’ so here I am, 20 years later!”
AIDS Resource, with offices located in both Williamsport and State College, has served the community as a resource to provide necessary services to both those who are living with HIV and those in need of HIV and STI testing/education since 1988.
“We have a wide range of services for people that are living with HIV, starting with case management, but we offer a lot of financial assistance with things like housing, medical appointments, utilities, insurance, we have food delivery, we transfer people to medical appointments, smoking cessation, nutritional supplements, a little bit of everything… Trying to keep people as healthy as possible for as long as possible… For the community, we also offer free HIV testing, free STI testing and free STI treatment. We have a PrEP clinic once a month and free condoms and safer sex materials.”
Having been involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS over the past twenty years, Burkhart says that the medical advancements and revelations that have become available and accepted to help with AIDS prevention are “Extraordinary”, citing the “U=U” (Undetectable = Untransmissable) campaign as a major area of interest and outreach for their organization.
“(U=U) means that someone with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV sexually. That’s been widely accepted in the medical community for years but it seems like a lot of people in this area don’t know it yet. So, we have embarked on a campaign to spread awareness of that and (let the community know) that you don’t need to be afraid of people.”
Additionally, AIDS Resource is aiming to educate the community about the use of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis).
“PrEP… is another thing we’re trying to educate the community about. One pill, once a day, if you are at risk for contracting HIV and that will decrease your odds of contracting HIV by over 95%. So, people who are in serodiscordant relationships, where one partner is positive and the other isn’t, or are engaging in behavior that may put them at increased risk of contracting HIV, they can take one pill once a day and, pretty close to, eliminate that risk.”
Despite these advancements, Burkhart is still disheartened by the stigmatization surrounding HIV/AIDS and hopes that in the coming years, the stigmas and taboos will cease to be as widespread.
“I’m very frustrated by the stigma that still exists and want to work toward eliminating that.”
Looking towards the future, Burkhart sees good things ahead in the continued fight against AIDS.
“I definitely think that there will continue to be more medical advancements… I think the advancements are really going to continue and make (treatment) much easier. One of the things that I hope we see is a wider embracing of testing. Because that’s really our first line of defense. If we can get people tested so that everybody knows their status, and then get them into care quickly and then they become undetectable, then that will really (help to) stop the spread.”
For those who wish to get involved and fight to end the spread of and stigmatization against those with AIDS, Burkhart recommends that community members visit their website (www.aidsresource.com) to keep posted on ways to volunteer and support the organization.
Additionally, she stresses the importance of educating oneself with the latest information regarding these diseases.
“I think the best thing that people can do that want to help is to get educated. Make sure they understand the facts and then share that information with their friends and family to help spread the correct information…”