Members of a weekly support group for long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS called foul this month when they were told that the AIDS Committee Of Toronto (ACT) had decided to boot them out by the end of the year.
Group members sent an angry letter to ACT executive director Lori Lucier, and planned to protest outside ACT’s offices at Church and Carlton.
But ACT quickly reversed the decision which Lucier now calls a “gaffe.” She has offered an apology to the group, admitting to miscommunication and problems with staff accountability. ACT has agreed to continue providing meeting space as well as two facilitators for four hours a week.
Members of the 15-year-old support group and ACT management are now working together to improve internal communication. ACT is also looking at ways to ensure the ongoing stability of its support groups.
“Decision-making happens at all different levels in the organization, so accountability becomes a real problem,” says Lucier. “But when miscommunication happens between staff and volunteers, the struggle for accountability becomes apparent.”
Lucier would not say who at ACT made the initial decision to cancel the group but readily admits that it was a bad one, considering there is a growing number of clients on the waiting list to join the group, which has 10 spots. A shortage of meeting space was the motivation.
“We face challenges regarding space and facilities, but there are other ways to handle this,” she says. “We need to be able to accommodate current groups as well as new ones.”
She said that ACT will look for solutions that avoid cancelling support groups, everything from having groups meet less frequently to installing moveable walls that would give ACT more flexibility in its physical space.
Since Lucier’s apology, group members have cooled off.
“We went into the meeting with Lori wanting, at the very least, services for the group to be restored unchanged, and that happened, so I’m completely comfortable with where we are right now,” says member Randy Yates.
Yates is now hopeful that ACT will be more willing to hear group members’ complaints and concerns in the future.
“Here’s just one example,” says Yates. “There is a water cooler right outside the room where we meet, but in the five years I have been with the group, there has never been water in there. All of us in the group take massive amounts of pills, so it’s ridiculous that there hasn’t been any water. This is what I’m talking about. It might be a small thing to [ACT employees], but it is a big thing for PWAs [people with AIDS].” When the group has mentioned the water problem, Yates says their complaints fell on deaf ears.
“There has been a real disconnect between long-term survivors and ACT.”
Of course, the group could always decide to relocate to another facility. But Yates and others decided that doing so would not be in the best interest of not only their group, but other ACT support groups as well.
“We are going to stay and work with ACT because if we leave, this will happen again to another group,” says Yates. “We would rather keep a close eye on ACT rather than wash our hands of the organization. I mean, ACT is there to serve us, not the organization’s workers.”
Lucier says she plans to closely examine these concerns.
“We want to open up the lines of communication so that clients can access ACT, not only support groups but all client services,” she says. “We need to find ways to support ongoing support groups so that they can continue to evolve, but we also need to be more responsive to feedback about the needs of the clients.”
Lucier plans to meet with the group again in four weeks.