Moving On

Butler reflects on his AIDS Project RI tenure
By BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL  |  April 19, 2006

When AIDS Project Rhode Island opened its doors in 1985, President Reagan had still not publicly uttered the word “AIDS.” People with HIV could expect to live no longer than five years. Today, roughly 3000 Rhode Islanders are living with HIV; more than 500 of them rely on the Project for support and assistance. Christopher Butler recently left his post as APRI’s executive director to take the reins at IN-Sight, a Warwick-based nonprofit agency that assists the blind and visually impaired. We talked prior to his departure.

What have you been able to accomplish in your five years at AIDS Project?
When I got here, the agency was pretty much bankrupt. It was pretty much a revolving door of staff people. We had lost a lot of credibility in the gay community. We went through a period where people thought the Project was too much about gay white men, and rather than expanding out to reach other communities, we just turned our back completely on the gay community. I think we’ve really significantly rebuilt [those] relationships. Opening the clinic at the Mega-Plex [a gay bathhouse in Providence], was a big thing for us to do. A lot of those guys in there are people that are outside the medical care system. They would never go to their physician and ask for an STD test or an HIV test. The only reason they’re doing it is because we’re in there and we’re providing it, and we’re being very appropriate about it, and giving prevention messages. I’m leaving with the agency having a $300,000 surplus, from a $150,000 deficit. We’ve really stabilized the staff; last year our staff turnover was 10 percent, down from 50 percent when I got here. The quality of our programs has increased significantly because we’ve brought in some really great staff people.

What has changed in the HIV community since you got here?
There’s definitely a lot more competition. When I got here, it was pretty much us and AIDS Care Ocean State, and the hospitals. Now there’s Agape, Family Service, Thundermist, there’s all sorts of agencies. And with the dollars shrinking, there’s just more and more competition for the dollars. The other significant change is the people who need us and the services we provide. When I was a buddy here in the late ’80s and early ’90s, my buddy assignments were six months. You met somebody, you held their hand on their deathbed, and then they were gone . . . . Now [clients] will be coming through here 30 years from now, unless somebody finds a cure. That’s going to be the big challenge for the AIDS community — how do we shift from worrying about the short-term to really worrying about the long-term?

What do you hope your legacy will be here?
It’s very important to me, to my friends who come here and get services here, to the memory of the people that we’ve lost, that this agency continue to be strong, to be vibrant. The board is going to look for someone who’s going to continue to build the relationships in the gay community, continue to build the relationships with other agencies; who’s going to be a really strong advocate for AIDS funding and AIDS prevention.

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