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In the late 1980s a group of women from the Junior League of Evanston knew there was support for people suffering from HIV and AIDS in the city of Chicago, but there was not much available for people living on the North Shore. So with the help of a few church volunteers and other community members, they created BEHIV (Better Existence with HIV).

What began in 1987 as a grassroots mental health counseling center for patients with HIV and AIDS and their loved ones has grown into a full-service organization with a budget of nearly $1.4 million.  Today BEHIV serves patients and their families from as far south as Foster Avenue in Northern Cook County all the way through to DuPage County. It provides a broad spectrum of services, including case management, housing and prevention as well as mental health and wellness. 

“The only thing we don’t offer is direct medical care,” says Eric Nelson, BEHIV’s executive director.  “Otherwise, we do our best to help our clients with everything else.”

Mr. Nelson acknowledges that patients come to them with HIV but says they often have a number of other issues that need to be dealt with.

“For instance, they may have a substance-abuse issue, may be homeless or are dealing with domestic violence,” says Mr. Nelson. “We are often taking care of two or three different things before we can really sit down and make sure they are making their doctors’ appointments and taking their medications.”

BEHIV’s case management team is available to develop a plan designed to meet the needs of each client. Case managers are trained social workers and are knowledgeable about available resources, including medical providers, public aid, Social Security, housing and treatment programs.

Mr. Nelson believes prevention is crucial to the success of the program. By offering support groups, counseling, testing and referrals, BEHIV is able to help prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). 

 BEHIV’s HIV-Prevention Education programs reach thousands of young people each year at schools, colleges and community agencies throughout the Chicagoland area. 

With a disturbingly high rate of infections — one in two — occurring in adolescents, it is more important than ever that youth have the knowledge and skills necessary to protect themselves, says Mr. Nelson. 

BEHIV has been working with Evanston Township High School for many years and continues to partner with the faculty to provide up-to-date information on the development and spread of the disease among the students. 

BEHIV offers large-group presentations in auditoriums filled with students, but Mr. Nelson says they prefer to work with smaller groups.  “With fewer students we can have a deeper discussion about the long-term societal effects of having HIV, such as what to do if you’re out of a job and how to pay the bills or rent.”

As the organization has grown, BEHIV has outgrown its space at 1740 Ridge Ave.  Several years ago it expanded to a second location at 1244 W. Thorndale in Chicago and will soon be consolidating everything into the Chicago office. 

“We are currently remodeling the Chicago office, and it makes financial sense to consolidate,” says Mr. Nelson.  “But, we want to assure Evanston residents that nothing will change in terms of what we provide Evanston.   For years now the case managers who have been working with the Evanston schools have been working out of the Chicago location.” 

The Evanston office has been used mainly for administration and development purposes.

To recognize BEHIV’s 20 years of life-saving programs, it will be hosting a cabaret on April 4 from 7 to 10:30 p.m. at the Woman’s Club of Evanston, 1702 Chicago Ave.  The festivities will include food, drinks, dancing and a live auction.  Tickets are $25 each or five for $100. For tickets call 847-475-2115 x114 or visit www.behiv.org.

For a private consultation with a case manager or to find out more about what BEHIV has to offer, call 773-293-4740.