When Alice Johnson's 31-year-old son, Bobby, died of AIDS last September in New York, she attended a support group in the county to help her deal with her loss. What Mrs. Johnson, an Ellicott City resident, says she got instead was a lack of understanding.
So Mrs. Johnson joined the AIDS Alliance of Howard County (AAHC). She volunteered as fund-raising coordinator to spread the word about awareness, education and prevention.
"Through awareness, I hope that this community understands and will accept the persons who are HIV positive, the persons who have died, their survivors and those who are living with [acquired immune deficiency syndrome]," Mrs. Johnson said. "Bobby left me with such a legacy -- an awareness of life itself. There is no time for bitterness, anger, prejudice or judgment; we have only a speck of time."
The alliance, a 5-year-old, non-profit organization, is composed of 35 members. They include individuals such as friends and family of people who have AIDS and community organizations such as the Family Life Center in Columbia, Howard Community College, two drug rehabilitation centers -- Changing Point and Orchard Hill -- Howard County schools and the Department of Social Services.
"We want to coordinate services. Howard County represents a broad scope of agencies, and we want to service any gaps," said Ann Wicke, chairwoman of AAHC and disability services coordinator for the Howard County Department of Citizens' Services.
Mary Mazzuca, a staff community health nurse who represents the Howard County Health Department as a member of the alliance, says that 64 county residents have been diagnosed with AIDS as of last month. Based on those figures, she estimates about 380 people in the county may be infected with HIV, which causes AIDS.
"A lot of people choose to go into the city because of issues like anonymity, and because they don't always know what is available in the county for them," said Ms. Wicke. "The stats are kept where the diagnosis was made. We feel the numbers are only the tip of the iceberg."
The alliance originated when Elaine Patico, program and volunteer director of Hospice Services of Howard County, and the Rev. Art Lillicropp, chaplain at Howard County General Hospital, recognized the need to coordinate services for people who have AIDS or who are HIV positive.
"I discovered that [AIDS] patients had no resources available in the hospital. I called hospice services, and we did some networking to get some community organizations together," said Lillicropp. He has been chaplain at the hospital for six years.
Ms. Patico said that during that same time she had received an increasing number of calls from people who had had AIDS and were inquiring about various services, but she wasn't sure where to steer them.
"I had gotten a call from a person with AIDS, and he told me he was making his 19th call in search of a support group," Ms. Patico said. "People who are sick should never be forced to make that many calls.
"I went over to the Health Department and suggested the possibility of meeting with several agencies in order to coordinate various services and was told that Art Lillicropp wanted to do the same," she said.
As a result, Ms. Patico, Mr. Lillicropp and Pat Johnston, who was then AIDS educator for the Howard County Health Department, joined forces to form the alliance.
"We are now in a better place in 1992 than when we were formed," said Mrs. Mazzuca. "At that time, we weren't sure if there were any doctors to see anyone. Nothing else matters if you can't get a doctor to see you. That climate has changed, however, and there are more doctors -- who are primary care physicians -- who have seen a couple of people who are either HIV positive or who have AIDS."
The AIDS Alliance of Howard County is supported by fund-raising events, gifts and grants. An annual production called "Labor of Love," sponsored by AAHC, raised $9,500 last year. The AIDSWALK '91 provided $3,000, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- an organization that provides services to people who do not have housing or basic needs-- allocated $2,000 this year to the alliance for housing. Four more fund-raising events are scheduled for this year and will include a dance performance, concerts and a fashion show.
The alliance has an emergency fund committee that reviews applications and dispenses financial assistance within 72 hours. Since January 1990, the committee has served 25 people with emergency needs.
"A large amount of assistance has been for rent, mortgage payments, utilities, medications, food, personal care and transportation," Ms. Wicke said. "One of the significant things is that most people who find they are HIV positive are people who have an income. If they are symptomatic, however, it's very easy to use up disability benefits and often they have a period of time in which they have no money."
In addition to financial assistance, the organization provides an AIDS resource guide to persons who need information. The booklet is compiled annually by the Howard County Health Department and AAHC and addresses questions like, "Where can I be tested for HIV antibodies?" "How can I find transportation?" and "I'm taking care of someone with AIDS. How do I find a home health aide?" A list of topics includes addiction counseling services, community service organizations and HIV testing information.
"I was counseling a professional man who works for a small company. He was terrified about his company finding out about his HIV status and cried when he found out about the resource guide being available in the town in which he is living," Mr. Lillicropp said.
In June, a booth was set up at the Columbia Fair in order to educate the public. Red ribbons were passed out to reinforce awareness of the disease. In addition, 3,200 condoms were given to people, ages 15 and above. A volunteer sign-up sheet yielded 40 signatures of persons who would like to become involved with AAHC.
"We are just getting ready to look at the needs of the 'buddy system' which is supported by volunteers," Ms. Wicke said. "They are similar to hospice volunteers in that they need training and will do errands like shopping. They are companions who are helping the person to do certain things."
The county Health Department received a $4,250 federal grant from the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act which will pay for the new program.