The longest serving CEO of an AIDS organization in the U.S. has dedicated his life to providing quality, stable housing for people with HIV
When the staff and board of AIDS Services of Dallas handed President and CEO Don Maison a plaque celebrating 25 years of service on Feb. 1, they were not only honoring his service but also marking a milestone in the history of the AIDS crisis.
This marked the first time one person has headed a major AIDS organization in the U.S. for a quarter of a century. Maison is believed to be the longest serving leader of an HIV/AIDS service provider, and he credits his longevity to the people around him.
“The best leader is someone who surrounds himself with brilliant people,” Maison said.
He said his staff and volunteers, as well as other people in the community, are responsible for his success as the organization’s leader. ASD provides housing for individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS.
Legacy Counseling Center Executive Director Melissa Grove called him one of the foremost authorities on HIV housing in the nation.
“Don was a leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS before it was popular and kept the issue in front of the people who needed to know about it,” Grove said.
Indeed, before he was hired to head the fledgling agency, he was an attorney who participated in a lawsuit against Parkland Hospital to force Dallas County to provide available medications to people with HIV. Among his clients was Ron Woodroof whose story was told in the recent film Dallas Buyers Club.
Maison is equally respected across the country.
Gina Quattrochi is CEO of Bailey House, which provides similar services in New York City, and has known Maison for most of the 23 years she’s headed that organization.
“Don Maison is an indomitable leader whose vision and commitment have been instrumental in shaping the way our country cares for homeless men and women living with HIV/AIDS,” Quattrochi said. “Don’s role in founding the National AIDS Coalition in 1994 helped launch the organization, which has had the greatest impact on funding and policy regarding PLWHAs.”
Maison said he has long-term plans for growth for ASD, but right now he’s focused on replacing two of his key staff members. Accounting Manager Jackie Jones passed away last month and Development Associate and Volunteer Services Manager Mary Beth O’Connor will retire at the end of the month.
O’Connor said ASD wouldn’t be what it is without Maison. She’s been with the agency for 22 years and began as a volunteer.
“He loves a good fight,” she said. “ASD is pretty much his life.”
She said his standard has always been that each property had to be nice enough that he’d be happy living there himself.
When the first residents moved into Ewing Center in 1987, protesters greeted the opening of the facility with signs reading, “No gays/AIDS colonies.”
Despite the fears of protesters, the AIDS facility improved the neighborhood.
“We’ve made a big difference in the neighborhood,” O’Connor said. “The hookers are gone on our corners.”
And other properties around ASD’s Ewing, Revlon Apartments and Hillcrest House have been upgraded or completely renovated and rent and property values in the area have increased.
Maison said the agency has acquired three lots behind Hillcrest House and has been dealing with zoning for the past two years. He wants to use the additional property to build a higher-density facility that will house more individuals and families than current zoning will allow.
Currently ASD has 150 people on its waiting list for housing.
Someone accepted into one of the agency’s units can stay there for life. There was a day when that period used to average just a few months, but O’Connor said ASD went almost a year recently without losing a resident.
She said stable housing is the key to keeping many of the residents healthy, and that’s what Maison has dedicated his life to doing.
Stable housing was a component of AIDS care that was completely missing when ASD purchased Ewing Center and hired Maison to become the agency’s executive director.
William Waybourn, who was President of Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance during the Parkland lawsuit, said honoring Maison with a plaque wasn’t enough.
“Of course, it’s a nice gesture, but it hardly repays him for the days he sweated helping people with unfunded programs and made other underfunded projects work nonetheless,” Waybourn posted to Facebook. “Don’s 25th anniversary is just a snapshot in time because the true picture covers days, nights, weekends, holidays, weeks, months and years of 24/7 dedication. Think about that? Who does that anymore?”
Maison also credited early community leaders like Bill Nelson and Terry Tebedo “for making me strong enough to endure this adventure.”
Waybourn said Maison could have abandoned ASD and returned to a lucrative law career, but he didn’t.
“No, he stayed and served people that others ignored, or no one else would serve, care for or forgot,” Waybourn said. “In reality, we are the ones who are honored by his service because there is no way to repay him for what he’s done. Be very, very grateful for him, and wish him well. Often.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 7, 2014.