HIV Ribbon

According to HIV.gov, there are more than 1 million people in the United States who have the human immunodeficiency  virus.  Its impact is even greater when you take into account the loved ones of those with the disease. 

Experts say education surrounding the virus — including resources focused on prevention and treatment — is crucial in mitigating its spread. In this part of the state, those resources are the focus of the Southern Colorado Health Network.

“Southern Colorado AIDS Project was founded in 1986 in response to the AIDS crisis in order to support and advocate for people living with HIV/AIDS,” said Donald DeAngelis, regional director of SCHN.

“More recently, SCAP was merged with other AIDS service organizations across the state to form Colorado Health Network; thus creating Southern Colorado Health Network in this area of the state.”

SCHN is part of the greater Colorado Health Network, which includes similar organizations in northern and western Colorado, as well as a central Denver office. 

Altogether, the Colorado Health Network brought in more than $24 million in 2019 — the vast majority (more than $23 million) through government grants. 

Of that, $22 million goes directly into program services like the organization’s food bank, housing assistance programs, oral health examinations and procedures, counseling and STI tests, just to name a few of the services CHN offers to those living with HIV. 

In CHN’s 2019 annual report, chief executive officer Darrell J. Vigil wrote that in 2019 the nonprofit “greatly expanded services available to clients. 

“Additionally, CHN expanded its behavioral health programs and made robust efforts to expand prevention services, including syringe access programs — all while maintaining and growing some of the traditional service offerings including case management, nutritional services, housing assistance, health access services and emergency financial assistance.”

Those seeking help in southern Colorado have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, DeAngelis said, but SCHN is doing all it can to ensure people do not go without assistance during these trying times.

“Our services and programs are essential for the people we serve,” said DeAngelis. 

“During COVID, we are still providing all essential services for our clients and participants, to include medical case management, testing, PrEP [Pre-exposure prophylaxis, a medication that reduces chances of contracting HIV], navigation services, dental and behavioral health care and food and rental assistance. Many of the mentioned services are being provided remotely for client and staff safety.”

There are other challenges. Stigma still accompanies HIV — partially from misunderstanding of the virus itself, as well as a history of homophobia surrounding the condition. (Through education, more people are now aware that anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, is susceptible to contracting HIV.)  

“Conversations and community education are critical to erasing stigma surrounding people living with HIV,” said DeAngelis. “For example, Undetectable equals Untransmittable or U=U means people cannot pass HIV through sex when they have undetectable levels of HIV. People living with HIV can become undetectable by taking and adhering to their medication as prescribed. Community knowledge about the advancement of HIV treatment options and open dialogue will help to eliminate stigma in regard to HIV.” 

SCHN aims to facilitate that open dialog in the Pikes Peak region.

As for the organization’s goals: Despite the challenges of the pandemic, SCHN aims to ensure that people continue to receive information and treatment for HIV, as well as information about other conditions and general sex education. 

“SCHN will continue to center our work around communities and people affected by HIV,” said DeAngelis. “We also provide testing for Hepatitis C, PrEP navigation, and sexual health education. SCHN will continue to partner with communities and other organizations throughout southern Colorado to ensure people living with HIV and other health conditions can thrive and access necessary resources and services.”

For more information or to donate, visit indygive.com.