Minnesota AIDS Project and Rainbow Health Initiative have merged to create a dynamic new nonprofit, JustUs Health.
We honor the histories of these two great organizations—and all of the staff, volunteers, board members, clients, and community members who powered them—as JustUs Health could never have been a reality without the hard work of both organizations who came before it.
A history of Minnesota AIDS Project:
From its birth in 1983 as the vision of a small group of dedicated gay men, including Bruce Brockway, the first Minnesotan with a documented case of HIV, to becoming the state's largest AIDS service organization, the Minnesota AIDS Project has been an integral witness to and player in the story of HIV in Minnesota and AIDS in America. Today, with a four million–dollar annual operating budget, the Minnesota AIDS Project helps those living with HIV while continuing to educate Minnesotans on limiting new infections.
On April 27, 1983, articles of incorporation were first filed to officially name a small group of volunteers the "Minnesota AIDS Medical Project." The group was organizing service and prevention measures for a disease that was only just beginning to emerge into the national public consciousness. A year later, the name was amended to "The Minnesota Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome Project." One of the early volunteers, Dennis Kearney, stated, "We did the best with what we knew and frankly we didn't know much." Volunteers relied heavily of contacts they had across the country for information as well as local infectious disease doctors to learn whatever they could about this new disease.
In 1985, the organization received its first grant, $25,000 from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, providing funds for a half–time staff person, Jim Chalgren, and for targeted safe sex messages for the gay male community. The organization was now focusing on both education/prevention and service to those already infected under the arm of "Services for People with AIDS" (SPA), a group within the Minnesota AIDS Project that at the time developed its own vision and long–term plans. In October of 1985, Eric Engstrom was hired as the group's first acting director.
Later in the same year an infusion of $125,000 from the state legislature allowed the fledgling organization to move to 2025 Nicollet in Minneapolis from its small office on University and Snelling in St. Paul. More importantly, it allowed the hiring of additional staff. The agency began expanding its role once again, moving into activism that included reaching out to policy makers and public officials.
The next few years saw a flurry of activity as the organization — and the epidemic — continued to grow. In 1986, the first case management efforts began, along with the birth of the "MAP Hotline," which would become the Minnesota AIDS Project AIDSLine. The next year, the 100th AIDS death was reported in the state, along with over 25,000 deaths nationwide. The first Minnesota AIDS Walk was held in 1988 as the disease began to be more widely reported among shared needle users and in the wider straight community.
The Ryan White CARE Act, which still provides the majority of federal funding to HIV/AIDS service organizations was passed in 1990, the year Lorraine Teel became executive director, a position she would hold for the next 20 years.
The 1990s brought continued expansion with new and expanded services for the community. The number of new infections being reported each year was rising and many were dying. The Ryan White Care Act allowed for the development or expansion of many services to provide support including the legal program, case management, transportation, emergency financial assistance and the AIDSLine. In 1994, the organization established a formal public policy department to focus on advocating for the rights of those with HIV and to address issues that continued to fuel stigma and misinformation about the disease. The organization was also successful in launching its mobile syringe exchange program to reduce the risk of HIV through injection drug use (IDU)– which has lead to Minnesota having one of the lowest rates of HIV transmission via IDU in the country. The AIDSLine moved from a response only hotline to serving the state as a simple, single point of contact for information and referral services. Improved medications helped many HIV positive people who had access to healthcare, but getting appropriate care remains a barrier for many.
In the late-1990s, PrideAlive and Positive Link began. PrideAlive brought the LGBTQ community together to create space for conversations about HIV prevention, mobilize volunteers to get into the community with important prevention information and tools, and engage the community in advocating for effective prevention strategies and funding. Positive Link brought together gay and bisexual men living with HIV to support one another, break down HIV stigma, and provide resources to those living with HIV.
As the treatment options for HIV changed in the 1990s, and people living with HIV were able to life much longer lives, MAP adapted to meet those changing needs. Programs like Benefits Counseling emerged to help people navigate the complicated web of public and private programs that elevate the standard of living for people living with HIV. The agency also faced a growing perception that because of medication advances there was a decreased need for HIV prevention and services. However, the advances in treatment are only helpful when a client is able to make it past a number of hurdles; if they have insurance, if they get into care early enough, if they have housing, if they have a support system, if they respond to the medications. Many still suffer daily with HIV and need help in finding their way through a myriad of healthcare challenges.
Continuing to educate about HIV was, and is, essential. In the late 2000s, MAP launched Training, Education, And Capacity-building for HIV (TEACH). TEACH reaches out to the community and health and human services professionals to ensure they have the latest information about HIV. MAP also introduced substance use counseling and mental health counseling to list of services available to the community. These services have been vital in breaking down some of the barriers clients face in maintaining their health.
As new HIV prevention strategies emerge in the 2010s, MAP has stayed current. In 2016, MAP added navigation services for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, a promising new prevention strategy that stops HIV from infecting people at risk. Understanding the promise of HIV treatment as an important HIV prevention strategy led to increased care linkage programs, and a focus on medication adherence. MAP also adopted adjunct services such as Hepatitis C testing and prevention efforts, as well as overdose prevention to respond to the needs of clients in our syringe exchange program.
Looking ahead to the years to come, we hope for a Minnesota where every person living with HIV has access to the resources they need, and that no person becomes infected with HIV. These are high hopes, but with your help we know we can do it. As a community, we will need the same or even greater level of commitment as the last 33 years. It is an ongoing challenge, but one that our state can meet with the support of the Minnesota AIDS Project and its friends.