October is AIDS Awareness Month – a time to remember that HIV still exists and can become life-threatening when left undiagnosed or untreated.
Vicky Fortugno-Oliver is director of Hillsborough County for EPIC (Empath Partners in Care), one of the largest providers of HIV care, support, prevention education and free and rapid testing services in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. She oversees EPIC’s Francis House campus in Tampa and feels a heavy toll when longtime clients die from AIDS or AIDS-related conditions.
“I’ve been in this community for almost 20 years. It’s something that we still deal with. We’re still losing people. We just recently lost a client who was a long-term survivor and that was a big loss,” she shared.
“People think of it (HIV) as treatable, it’s not going to happen to them or they can get medications and be okay. We’re not seeing a decrease in clients. From the health department alone, we’re getting upwards of 50 referrals a month, which is a lot. HIV is still out there. People can always reach out to us. We get many people calling in with questions and needing support. We provide whatever we can to the community,” she explained.
A Commitment to HIV Work
Originally from New York, Fortugno-Oliver moved to Florida and attended University of South Florida (USF), where she connected to the HIV mission.
“I was going to school and heard about Tampa AIDS Network (TAN), the first AIDS organization in this area. Back then people were very sick and dying and nobody wanted to work with them. I was personally touched by that. I worked at TAN and when the contract shifted and the organization closed, I went on to work for other HIV organizations and then came to Francis House,” she said.
Francis House was founded in 1990 by Sister Anne Dougherty, a Franciscan Sister of Allegany. Sister Dougherty worked with HIV and AIDS patients at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, where they expressed a need for somewhere to go and get support because they had been alienated from their friends, families and faith, noted Joy Winheim, executive director of EPIC.
The first support groups were held at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church until an auto garage owner donated his building to Sister Dougherty for her cause, Winheim explained. Support groups, meals, counseling and day care (eliminated in 2005 because it was no longer a need) services were held in the garage building, which was renovated into the current Francis House day center in 1990. Then there was a shift to adult services, including the addition of medical case management, a food and personal care pantry, an annex space and housing programs.
Francis House became part of EPIC in 2016 and also added pharmacy services. The welcoming environment, compassionate staff and expert support at the day center help EPIC clients stay in care, manage their medications, maintain good physical and mental health and live self-sufficiently.
Fortugno-Oliver shared, “We have a lot of clients who benefit from our services every day. They can get off the streets to a safe place and get the nutrition and support they need.”
People come to EPIC in many ways, including doctors’ referrals usually as well as self-referrals and referrals from hospitals, she noted. Services for clients start with assessments and plans of care with case managers and support services specialists help connect clients to support.
“Once people are enrolled in services, they are free to come here for breakfast, lunch, support groups and any activities we may do. We have a transportation program for clients to earn bus passes to go to doctor’s offices and other places they need to go. Our pantry is open to them any day. We handle Ryan White services and have started a partnership with Tampa Care Clinic as part of the health department. Here in Hillsborough, we do short-term housing assistance for clients who are in danger of losing their housing,” she said.
Mental health treatment for clients is a major need and focus of EPIC. Newly-awarded funding will help expand this important care.
Fortugno-Oliver shared, “We just got a grant through the City of Tampa to start psych services here once a week. There will be a psych nurse or other clinical professional who will see our clients and they will be able to get their prescriptions, meds and whatever they need. We have a mental health counselor who will work together with that person to develop comprehensive plans for clients. We are excited about it. There is still such a stigma with mental health and many people don’t reach out to get help. By providing these services in a place that clients think of as home, they can be comfortable signing up for this support.”
Many clients struggle getting by in everyday life, so having all services together in one location is critical.
“Housing is a challenge with rents going up and not a lot of inventory. Many of our clients are unable to work or are very low income and we serve a large homeless population that is transient and on the streets. We know they are in a safe place here all day and their needs are being met. For our clients, it is so important that we provide a one-stop shop with everything they need under one roof,” she said.
The team works together with the community to provide additional support for clients.
“We recently have had clients work with an attorney pro bono to get their rights restored so they can vote. That was the first program of its kind in Hillsborough County. It’s all about building those relationships and getting resources to help our clients. We try to obtain whatever services they need. If people weren’t taking meds and now do or if people were on the street and now have jobs and apartments to call their own, those things are huge. I think they are all success stories.”
Are you HIV-positive? Do you need support?
Visit MyEPIC.org to learn more about eligibility, services and enrollment or call us at (813) 237-3066 in Hillsborough or (727) 328-3260 in Pinellas.
Free and rapid HIV testing is available at any of our locations or inside our mobile unit.