Medical advances may have made it easier to live comfortably with HIV, but the disease is still very much with us, Ron Curran reports. After 10 years as executive director of The Western North Carolina AIDS Project, Curran recently announced that he’s retiring June 30.
Asked what’s been his greatest challenge, Curran replies: “Keeping the needs of HIV and AIDS patients in the public eye. Some think it’s no longer a problem, [but it’s] still with us.” In the last decade, the number of new cases nationwide has climbed 25 percent, from about 44,000 per year to 55,000 — despite public-education efforts and increased awareness.
Most of those new cases are among young people and minorities, notes Curran. “The young sometimes feel like, ‘If I take a pill, I’ll be OK.’ [But] there are complications with this disease, [which] compromises your immune system.”
Another challenge, he says, has been overcoming misperceptions and fears about HIV, not to mention the stigma attached to it.
Nonetheless, during Curran’s 10 years at WNCAP, the organization has made great strides, board President Mark Collins reports. “Under Ron’s watch, this agency has blossomed, growing to meet the needs of our clients and our community. … He has kept a keen eye on finances, legislation, health and the specialized needs of our growing client base.”
One key accomplishment was moving the organization out of its 2001 "at risk" status — a designation reflecting concerns by both state officials and local United Way leaders that the nonprofit had no financial reserves and wasn’t operating within its budget.
Today, WNCAP is financially stable, and its annual budget has jumped from $270,000 to $730,000. The organization’s support comes from three regional United Way agencies, the state of North Carolina, the Sisters of Mercy of North Carolina Foundation, the Mission Hospitals Community Benefits Program, The 300 Society, the North Carolina Community AIDS Fund, the National AIDS Fund and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Getting its fiscal house in order has enabled WNCAP to improve existing programs while creating new ones. In 2010, the nonprofit partnered with Western North Carolina Community Health Services to form the Appalachian Wellness Network, which provides Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program services. (The federal program provides HIV-related services to areas most severely affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic; White, an Indiana teenager who died in 1990, contracted AIDS through a tainted hemophilia treatment and was expelled from school because of the disease.)
WNCAP also expanded its service area from 12 to 19 counties and added two new locations where people can access those services. The group now boasts a strong HIV advocacy program, conducts a homelessness-prevention program in partnership with the city of Asheville, and for two years operated a state-funded pilot education-and-prevention program for hepatitis C.
Another key accomplishment has been dramatically expanding WNCAP's client discretionary fund, from $15,000 to $40,000. This vital resource provides emergency financial assistance to clients when all other sources of support have been exhausted.
Curran stresses that he didn’t achieve these results single-handed. In 2003, WNCAP developed a strategic plan whose goals included improving the skill set and diversity of its board of directors. Because financing was a challenge, bankers were recruited to serve on the board, along with community leaders in the medical, business, media and other fields, Curran explains.
A new strategic plan completed this fall “gives a clear road map to move WNCAP appropriately to the next level,” notes Collins. “The board created a checklist and review of all items pertinent to the continued smooth running of the agency.” That includes a process for finding Curran’s successor.
Meanwhile, Curran says he’s not closing the door on community service. He’s chaired the Regional HIV Planning Group for four years and serves on both the statewide HIV Planning Group and the N.C. AIDS Care Unit Advisory Committee. Locally, he’s been involved with the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, and last year he became a member of the advisory board for the Asheville-based nonprofit Youth OUTright.
Reaching out to youth and educating them about HIV is crucial, Curran emphasizes. Young people naturally tend to believe they’re invincible, and some may be waiting for an instant cure. But HIV, he points out, “is a disease we could eradicate if people were careful.”
The Western North Carolina AIDS Project provides HIV-related services to North Carolina residents in the form of client support, prevention education and outreach activities. For more information, visit wncap.org or call 252-7489.
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