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AIDS patients given support by Sierra foundation

JILL DARBY, Sun News Service

Approximately one out of 300 South Lake Tahoe residents has HIV or AIDS, and many people harbor the fatal disease without knowing it, according to the Sierra Foothills AIDS Foundation.

This nonprofit organization is dedicated to providing medical and support services to people with HIV and AIDS, and their families.

“We provide medical consultations for folks,” Executive Director Jeff Cowan said. “We provide meals if that’s needed. We look at the individual situation and then start plugging the holes AIDS has brought into their lives.”

Sierra Foothills has been in operation for 11 years and has been doing case management at South Shore since May 1999.

“Right now we have four locations,” Cowan said. “We primarily serve four counties, although we have one program that serves about a dozen counties.”

The South Shore office serves about 40 clients, who have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS.

“We usually get people when they’re finding out they’re positive,” said Maxine Alper, Sierra Foothills service coordinator at South Lake Tahoe. “The caseload varies a little bit because sometimes people move into the area or move out or people die. Since I’ve been doing this, it’s been steady, between 35 and 40 people.”

In addition to providing care for those who have been newly informed of their infection, the foundation deals with long-term cases.

“Out of the 40 people we’re serving right now up there in Tahoe, there’s a mix of folks who have an AIDS diagnosis as well as those who are in the early stages of the disease,” Cowan said. “Right now we figure one in 300 people in the area is infected and many don’t know. Many of our new referrals are people who come to us very late in their disease and they have never been tested. That means they may have been infected for 10 years and been spreading it around.”

Funded mostly through federal grants, Sierra Foothills works closely with the El Dorado County Public Health Department.

“The health department does a lot of testing and community outreach in the area,” Cowan said. “We really back them in their efforts to get folks tested and get them into treatment.”

Emotional consolation is one aspect of the services offered at Sierra Foothills.

“Our aim is to make sure people who are HIV positive or have AIDS receive the medical services they need to live as long as possible,” said Alper, who explained emotional support is equally important to medical assistance. “There’s a lot involved in a person’s emotional state. So when a person comes in who is HIV positive, I talk to them and find out what their situation is. A lot of times, people are in shock. Sometimes people don’t know anything about HIV and sometimes they know a lot so we try to find out what the person needs at that moment.”

Alper said her job allows her to use her people skills and work in a caring atmosphere.

“I really love my job,” she said. “I like knowing I’m able to hook people up with the services they need. I assess what people need and I find out what I can do for them. I really like knowing I’m making a difference in people’s lives and that my job is meaningful.

“I find my work very empowering. Sometimes people find out they’re HIV positive and they’re depressed. They think their life is over, and I think it’s important for people to live a good life for as long as possible.”

There are difficult moments for Alper too, but she said she tries to concentrate on improving the quality of her clients’ lives.

“Some of the people we have as clients are the most wonderful people in the world and they become personal friends,” she said. “It’s always hard to see someone’s life changing. It’s hard to see people you care about become ill or die. But I think we’re much more in the business of helping people to live and stay independent, but when it gets to the point when people are dying we’re also there for that.”


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