Updated: Monday, June 13, 2016, 1:15 PM
Thirty years ago, when medicine could do little for people with HIV, Kevin J. Burns was a volunteer in a buddy system where buddies never came back.
"By and large, we did hospice care, helping people die with dignity," Burns said in recalling the early days of ActionAIDS, which grew into one of the largest and best recognized HIV services organizations in Philadelphia.
When lifesaving drugs became available, a priority became getting them to clients. Gradually, as people lived longer, the organization provided more services to manage a range of chronic diseases - HIV being a key one, but not the only one - that afflicted its patients.
On Monday, its name changed, too: Action Wellness.
"The goal for all of our clients will be to help them maintain and achieve wellness," said Burns, the longtime executive director, during an announcement at the group's offices in Center City. "People living with chronic illness, especially in poverty, do not have easy access to care."
Burns said the name change had been under consideration for a year, and mission was not the only reason. Some clients said they felt stigmatized by the word AIDS. And with government funding for AIDS services declining, Burns said, his organization as well as others around the country see a broadened mission as necessary to their survival.
The organization (http://actionwellness.org) has about 100 staff members and 350 volunteers. They provide medical case management, a range of health screening and preventive services, and supportive housing to more than 4,000 clients at five locations around the city and in Chester.
About two-thirds are straight, one-quarter are gay or lesbian, and 6 percent bisexual, with the orientation or identity of the remainder unknown. All are HIV-positive; the organization expects to start serving some uninfected clients.
Facing a room packed with nearly 100 staff, volunteers, and others, Burns began Monday's presentation with a moment of silence to acknowledge the terror attack that killed dozens of people at a gay club in Florida. Afterward, his voice breaking, he had trouble returning to the script.
ActionAIDS was created in 1986 "to connect those living with HIV/AIDS to essential services they needed and to be a 'friend for life' so that no one would face their illness alone," according to the organization's literature.
That mission is continuing, but Dan Dibuo, a board vice president, pointed out that illness is not the only way to die alone. He said he cried all day Sunday - for the people who died in Orlando, and for how they died. Some may be outed when their names are released, he said, "victims in two senses."
"Or they were lying on that floor or in a hospital alone," Dibuo said, because they had not been ready to come out as gay to coworkers and families, who then "wouldn't know to check on them."
Read full story: ActionAIDS expands mission, leaving storied name behind