As a social worker who specializes in issues around HIV and AIDS, Mr. McGovern has had to find ways to reinvent what his organization does as the public’s understanding of the disease fades in and out.

innovation-brian-mcgovern-largeMember of Adelphi University’s Profiles in Success program.

As a social worker who specializes in issues around HIV and AIDS, Brian McGovern ’87, M.S.W. ’89, has had to find ways to reinvent what his organization does as the public’s interest and understanding of the disease fades in and out.

When the HIV/AIDS epidemic began in the 1970s, people who had the disease were stigmatized and discriminated against. Over time, lawsuits and education established HIV/AIDS victims’ rights and lessened the stigma. The advances in the medical treatment of HIV/AIDS, which have transformed it from a fatal to a chronic disease in many cases, also altered public perception of the virus.

“Older generations thought HIV was a death sentence, but younger generations see that they’re not going to die, because of medication,” Mr. McGovern says. “Which is great, but it’s still an epidemic.”

“It still spreads and it leads to a very changed lifestyle with medication and health issues. But because people don’t see it as such an issue anymore, that affects government spending on HIV and AIDS programs.”

In 2001, Mr. McGovern became the director of social services at the North Jersey Community Research Initiative (NJCRI), a community-based organization that provides assistance to people with HIV/AIDS in the greater Newark area. His department focused on helping clients obtain the social services they needed, such as welfare, housing assistance, Medicaid and healthcare.

“We noticed that because most of our clients were disconnected [from friends and family] and having a hard time getting around, when we said, ‘go across town to the doctor,’ they were not always following through on it,” says Mr. McGovern, who became executive director of NJCRI in 2009. “A month later, they would be sicker.”

On Mr. McGovern watch, the organization brought medical doctors, psychiatrists and more nursing staff into the building. “What we decided was, the best way to serve clients was to provide as many services as we could in one place,” he says. To avoid the red tape of having to license the facility, NJCRI hired the doctors as consultants, in effect creating a private doctors’ office located at a community-based organization. “We refer patients to the doctors,” he explains. “To the patient, it still looks like one organization.”

NJCRI also introduced a range of non-HIV–related services, including a food pantry, chronic illness management education, substance abuse treatment and a drop-in center for LGBT youth. Now, about 7,500 people a year come in for NJCRI’s free and confidential support.

The new services have brought in new funding but, more importantly, improved NJCRI’s ability to care for its clients.

These days, Mr. McGovern says, “there are many doors to NJCRI. You might come in for food because you’re hungry; the next person might come in because they want an HIV test. It’s our goal to direct you to the other services you need.” For example, the LGBT youth drop-in center, with its living room, big-screen TV and kitchen, attracts a group of kids, ages 13 to 24, who have a high risk of getting HIV and nowhere to go. The one condition of membership is that they speak to a counselor once a month. The counselor is able to check in with them about HIV prevention and refer them throughout the building if they need additional help.

“I love my job,” Mr. McGovern says. “I’ve seen a lot of sad stories, a lot of people die or hurt themselves through substance abuse or destructive behavior, but I’ve also seen many people come out of that. When I hear people describe how they take the train to the office, then spend all day with a spreadsheet, I can’t understand how they can do it.”

Brian McGovern has also been featured in Adelphi University’s Profiles in Success program.

This piece is part of Innovation @ Adelphi from the Adelphi University Magazine Spring 2013 edition.

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