“After living in Inman Park in Atlanta for 10 years, we decided to move to Cartersville — my hometown — to raise our children,” Thomas said. “Shortly afterward, we had two friends in Atlanta who died from AIDS complications. The contrast in those two deaths was remarkable with one having strong family support and the other having none.
“I felt strongly that there were people living with HIV/AIDS in rural areas like Cartersville who might need support. With that in mind, I went forward with organizing an outreach ministry at my church. We soon realized that interest was widespread throughout the community and incorporated as an organization in 1992. We received IRS 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in 1995.”
Currently the AIDS Alliance assists 115 HIV/AIDS clients in 10 northwest Georgia counties. Along with offering HIV and AIDS education and prevention, the nonprofit also provides services to its clients, such as a housing program and transportation to doctors’ appointments. At its office — 1 Friendship Plaza, on the third floor of Cartersville's Train Depot — the AIDS Alliance administers free oral HIV tests each Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Name: Lola Thomas
Occupation: Executive director of the AIDS Alliance of Northwest Georgia
City of residence: Cartersville
Family: My husband, Jerry, and I have been married 35 years and have two sons together plus two sons, daughter-in-law and granddaughter from Jerry’s previous marriage.
Education: Cartersville High School, 1970; Georgia State University, 1982
Describe the role of the AIDS Alliance. How many people does it assist and what types of services does the organization provide?
A: We provide HIV prevention education to approximately 3,000 people each year with 20 percent of those individuals being tested for HIV. We also serve 115 HIV-positive individuals ranging in ages from 8 months to 72 years. They receive assistance with various programs including housing, transportation, support groups, food and other customized services. For a small organization with limited staff and resources, we are proud that we are able to provide such a broad range of services. The dedication of the staff and their willingness to go the extra mile makes this possible.
What do you enjoy most about working with the AIDS Alliance?
A: The diversity of the people we serve brings me great joy. This experience has helped me understand and be able to relate to people who are not like me and that I might not have encountered in a significant way had my life taken a different turn.
What are some of the most significant changes you have witnessed regarding advancements in medicine, who is being impacted by the disease and their prognosis?
A: I have always considered my work with each individual with HIV/AIDS as a journey. In my early years of this work, the end result of the journeys was the death of the person with whom I traveled. While this still happens at times, it is not frequent. Before, it was about helping someone learn to die; now it’s about teaching them that they can live meaningful and productive lives. The difference is in the powerful and effective medications that are now available.
What challenges still exist for people living with HIV and AIDS and how can the Bartow community help?
A: The biggest problem we still face is stigma. Most people, during their lifetime, have done something that has caused them difficulty, pain or sickness. We would be pleased to see less finger-pointing about the cause of someone else’s illness and more compassion for the person’s pain. At the AIDS Alliance, when someone who is HIV-positive comes to us for help, we don’t ask how they became infected. At that point in time, it is irrelevant. If the need is there, we try to help. We are grateful for the many good people in the community who support us but I will admit that we could use more of you. We are totally dependent on grants and donations to provide the many services that are needed.
What is your greatest professional and/or personal achievement?
A: My greatest professional achievements are the people who come one by one in their time of need and receive the support that helps them be able to live the best life they can. My personal achievement is maintaining a loving and happy family life.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
A: Direct, dedicated and determined. (My husband might say blunt, overworked and stubborn.)
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
A: Some people find it funny I played the accordion as a child. I don’t think I was very good at it, though my 89-year-old mother might disagree.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
A: I have received wonderful advice in my life, much of which I didn’t follow but I do try to follow the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church that includes striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
A. I like to putter. Puttering leads me to decorating, painting, gardening, organizing and so forth. I don’t consider myself artistically talented but taking a positive spin on the old saying, I can usually make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (and have fun doing it.)
Where is your favorite place to be in Bartow County?
A. Anywhere with my family. I’ve seen a lot of bad movies in my day just to have a family outing with my husband and sons.