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Lowcountry Aids Services

Life Coach: HIV/AIDS patients get more than help from LAS

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Lowcountry Aids Services
3547 Meeting St. Road
N. Charleston, S.C. 29405
(843) 747-2273
www.aids-services.com

What it is:
An organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for persons living with HIV and providing prevention resources for schools, churches, and community organizations.

What $25 would do
• Provide round trip transportation to two doctor's appointments
• Pay for one hour of nutritional counseling
• Allow case managers to make two home visits and grocery deliveries each month
• Cover the monthly copay for medication

Wish List:
• Clothes
• Toiletries
• Household appliances
• Office supplies
• "Basically, when you're cleaning out your home and want to put something out on the street, call us first." —Jennifer Benvenuto

"You called me at 10:30 Saturday night," Jennifer Benvenuto says to "Phillip," one of the caseworker's clients at Lowcountry AIDS Services.

"I needed long johns," Phillip says.

An hour later, Phillip doesn't leave with long johns, but he does get a jacket (he walked in wearing a shirt and pants he'd already gotten from Benvenuto), along with information on help paying for phone service, dental work, an eye exam, and food stamps.

It's hard for most to imagine going to one person for assistance with nearly every aspect of our lives. Your trainer at the gym doesn't balance your checkbook. Your banker isn't going to find you a deal on an iPod. But the 27-year-old Benvenuto and other caseworkers at LAS take to heart the concept that fighting AIDS involves a holistic approach — helping clients pay rent and utility bills, finding them jobs, making sure they have food to eat and clothes to wear — needs that on the surface do not appear to be directly related to a medical condition. Whether it's depression, a lack of support at home, or just an inability to pay for basic needs — any one of these things can give the virus an advantage. Which is why it's a good thing Benvenuto and company take such important roles in their clients' lives.

Phillip is just settling into his chair when Benvenuto asks if he's called about a dental appointment. "No," he says, trying to explain that he tried, but got an answering machine. But before he can get the words out, she picks up the phone, dials the nurse at MUSC, and hands the phone to Phillip, who needs a tooth extracted before he can get a needed spinal tap. Dental care is also a priority for people with HIV/AIDS because the mouth can easily become infected.

The rest of his hour follows a similar pattern. Benvenuto asks about things Phillip was supposed to do, getting excited when he says he got this or that done and giving him a mother's scowl when he stumbles through an excuse or just stares back at her with a silent 'no.'

In her five months with LAS, Benvenuto has been working with Phillip to get him in Section 8 housing and to appeal a denial of his application for disability benefits. She gives him grief for not getting antibacterial soap to ward off staph infections. He says he needs a new food stamp card, and Jennifer is on the phone with the Department of Social Services (DSS) to get one sent out.

"What size shoe do you wear? I've got some 13s," she says to Phillip, telling me later that she's running out of shoes.

He also helps her out. Benvenuto has learned through another client that a program exists to help needy people get a home phone. Phillip agrees to pick up an application at DSS and grab a handful for her. Another client told her about a low-cost college program that she's referred to other clients.

"They're very willing to help when they know they're helping somebody else in the same situation," Benvenuto says of her clients. "Some of the best resources come from them."

If Phillip was the only case Jennifer handled, the extra attention wouldn't be a surprise, but Jennifer manages about 100 HIV/AIDS cases with varying degrees of needs. Some, like Phillip, need help weekly, while others check in every once in a while.

When she learned that a client had been struggling to pay for his medicine, Benvenuto enrolled him in the state's drug assistance program. When another client, a veteran, said he was having a hard time paying for medical care, she put him in touch with the local veteran's hospital. That's about the limit of what one would expect Benvenuto's job to entail, but she doesn't just cross that line — she's pitched a tent on the other side. She went to an amputee support group with one client who lost a leg and got LAS involved in a Toys for Tots program after another client told her she was worried about having toys for her kids come Christmas.

But Benvenuto brings the tough love when she has to. Some clients have been put on strict guidelines after abusing the system. She tells a story about clients who have lied about receiving medical care in order to continue receiving aid.

"If you're not in medical care, that pushes a button," she says. For most, the threat of losing support is enough to get them back on track.

Benvenuto started working in the nonprofit sector after getting out of school about three and a half years ago. Since then she worked at another local nonprofit focused on STD and HIV prevention. Her long-term goal is to run a community-based nonprofit. With a family photo on her bookshelf right beside a model of a penis used to educate clients on how to put a condom on, Benvenuto says that her family didn't have a problem with her working in the nonprofit sector, but some are still figuring out what she's doing at LAS.

"Needless to say Christmas dinner was pretty entertaining," she says. "I was telling them about this ejaculating penile model, and their mouths just hung open."

Ann Benvenuto remembers when her daughter was going through orientation at school with only a handful of other students interested in social work.

"The department head told us they were a unique bunch," mom says. "He said, 'Social work is something people usually transfer in to. It's not where they start.'"

Always someone who relates to people and seeks out ways to help others, Jennifer Benvenuto has found her calling as a social worker, educator, and friend. "It's pulling all of her skills together," Ann says.

Before Phillip gets out the door, Benvenuto pulls some Clorox and detergent from the pantry. She asks if he needs a bedspread, but he begs her off. His hands are full. She's given him all he can carry.

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