“It brought [back] a lot of memories as we’ve cleared out files and records of days and people that we will always remember,” Thomas said. “So it’s brought with it sadness really that we’re leaving that behind in a sense. But we are looking at it — not just me but other volunteers here and people who’ve been involved along the way — in a grateful way. We are just glad that we were able to be here to help people that needed our help along the journey that we were all on.
“So we’re trying to just look at it in a positive way. We were able to do some good and we’re thankful that we had this privilege. For me personally, I look forward to retirement but it certainly is bittersweet.”
Citing a decline in funding as the primary reason, the AIDS Alliance of Northwest Georgia’s board of directors decided to close the nonprofit, effective Monday.
“Funding, never plentiful for AIDS organizations in rural areas like ours, has continued to decline over the past few years,” stated AIDS Alliance Board President Mal Underwood in a letter to the nonprofit’s supporters June 18. “Although HIV prevention is important and necessary, state funding has been going to metro counties since the end of 2012, with none left for those of us fighting the battle in outlying areas. And, as much as we would love to have seen the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS go away, it has not and donations are many times hard to come by. All of this combined with the retirement of our executive director, has led to our decision.
“We are working hard to make sure that programs previously handled by the AIDS Alliance are taken over by others. The housing program will be managed by Highland Rivers. Transportation will be handled through the Ryan White Clinic serving our area. Those needing HIV testing will be referred to the local health department as well as to other AIDS service providers. We feel confident that people will be able to find the help they need.”
Formed in 1992, the AIDS Alliance recently was assisting about 100 HIV/AIDS clients, ranging in age from 18 to 76, in 10 northwest Georgia counties.
Along with offering HIV and AIDS education and prevention, the Cartersville-based nonprofit also provided services to its clients, such as a housing program, transportation to doctors’ appointments and free oral HIV tests administered weekly at its office — 1 Friendship Plaza, on the third floor of the Train Depot.
“As changes with the HIV epidemic have occurred, the AIDS Alliance has adapted its services to meet the needs,” Thomas said. “However, funding has decreased, leading to a reduction in services. For several years, over 500 HIV tests were conducted annually. However, at the end of 2012, the Department of Public Health pulled funding from rural areas in Georgia. This led to a reduction in staff and a cut of $50,000 to the budget. In 2013, with no funding, the AIDS Alliance was still able to conduct 100 HIV tests, with the help of volunteers.
“Volunteers have been the backbone of the organization. Those individuals, along with staff members, who were technically part time, always gave their all to accomplish the work. All along the way, committed and devoted people always came along to help with whatever the needs were at the time.”
Spearheaded by Thomas, the organization was formed when she moved back to Cartersville around 1990 and — after two of her friends died from AIDS complications — tried to volunteer for an AIDS-related group. Once she discovered no such organization existed in the surrounding area, she researched the topic and started an AIDS outreach ministry under the umbrella of the Church of the Ascension. In 1992, the program incorporated as an organization, first known as Bartow AIDS Alliance, and later obtained nonprofit status in 1995.
“When we incorporated in 1992, there was still a lot of fear about HIV and AIDS,” Thomas said. “Also at that time, medicines were minimally effective in treating HIV, and resources were limited. Stigma was intense and people were afraid to acknowledge their HIV-positive status. Deaths were commonplace and it was seeing people dying without support that caught my attention and made me realize that help for them was needed. We began meeting at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, welcoming all who wished to be involved in forming a nonprofit organization.
“Founding board members of the AIDS Alliance included Dr. Sam Howell, Tony Perrotta and Emily Hatfield. There being no infectious disease doctor in the area, Dr. Howell took on the role of treating them. The early years were hard. We buried a lot of people who came our way. When people were given the news that they were HIV-positive, it was like giving them a death sentence. Somehow, people would find their way to my office. I would call Dr. Howell and he would ask a few questions to determine how sick they were. Then he would tell me to send them over, many times during his lunch hour or after hours. Never, not once, did he ever ask me if they had insurance or money.”
While there was reason for celebration during the mid- to late 1990s, with the AIDS community seeing improvements in treatment, Thomas said the need for the AIDS Alliance did not diminish.
“Around 1996, better medicines came along and we began to see the health of people improve,” Thomas said. “Although it involved a complicated treatment regime, and some people couldn’t handle the toxic side effects, others lived. It was a time of rejoicing. For a while, we thought that the need for the AIDS Alliance might disappear. However, that didn’t happen as we began to see the need for support services, especially transportation for people to get to the Ryan White HIV Clinic that opened in Rome. HIV education was also an important component that we began providing in 1998 when funding became available.
“We saw changes in demographics along the way. In the early years, we served mostly single individuals, usually Caucasian males. As time went along, we began to see women and families. And certainly, we began to serve people of color. These changes brought some additional needs like helping provide for children for the holidays, clothing and eventually housing.”
She continued, “In 2006, we were awarded a HUD grant to provide housing to individuals who were HIV-positive, homeless and disabled. The program started with seven units and increased over the years to 12 units. We have been pleased to provide stable, affordable and permanent housing to people who were previously homeless.”
For Patsy Adcock and her late husband, who both tested positive for HIV — the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS — in 1996, the AIDS Alliance and Thomas have provided a lifeline of support. Along with initially helping them learn more about HIV and AIDS, the AIDS Alliance has provided Patsy Adcock transportation to clinic appointments, housing and financial assistance, and access to support groups.
“The information that she [provided] to us 18 years ago was life-altering basically,” Adcock said. “The education just really made it so much more bearable and so much more manageable to deal with. She got us in touch with all the right people. ... I’m one of the only one’s that’s still in the actual program and participates that was there then — not just that’s living but still participates. Many times she’s helped with food. She’s helped with light bills over the years when things start falling apart with your jobs and your health and all that kind of stuff. [When] you don’t know where to go, she’s always known [where] to get that little bit of help you need for that moment.
“She’s always been there to listen and if she didn’t know, she found out. It was just [as] simple as that. She would not stop until she found out what you needed to know . ... I ask her all the time where her wings are because she’s just really like the most awesome person I know. [She is] very, very giving and loving and never toots her own horn. ... She’s worn every hat, like mother, sister, friend. She’s been there when people are sick in the hospital. She’s been there when I was sick. She’s been there when people died in our family. Sometimes I think she cloned herself, she was in so many places.”
Echoing Adcock’s sentiments about Thomas, Underwood credits the nonprofit’s achievements to its executive director’s passion for helping others.
“What Lola has meant to the organization is this — she has been the main driving force behind the AIDS Alliance of Northwest Georgia since its inception  years ago,” Underwood said Tuesday. “She has been its one and only executive director ever since it’s been in existence. It’s through Lola’s passion for her ministry here and helping those in need in our community and the surrounding areas and through her energy and through her absolute determination that these people were going to get what they needed that this organization has been as extraordinarily successful as it has been in helping those HIV-positive and AIDS patients in our area.
“Without that driving force, I do not believe there is any way that the AIDS Alliance of Northwest Georgia would have ever even lasted as long as it did. Lola was assisted by a lot of very passionate volunteers along the way through all these years, including her husband, Jerry, who helped immensely in many, many ways. But I will still say to you that without Lola’s driving force and energy and enthusiasm, it wouldn’t have happened. So more than anything else, it is her personal mission and ministry that have meant so much to the organization and its success.”