Gould: Merging with TCAIN and moving to newer, larger facilities means AOC can expand, improve services
FORT WORTH — A new year, a new home and a merger — it’s a busy time for AIDS Outreach Center of Tarrant County.
The agency, founded in 1986 to provide AIDS services for Tarrant County and seven surrounding rural counties, officially merged this week with Tarrant County AIDS Interfaith Network. And the organization, still named AIDS Outreach Center, moved into newer, much larger facilities at 400 N. Beach St. in Fort Worth.
The merger became official on Tuesday, Sept. 1, the first day of the new fiscal year for AOC and TCAIN, and AOC opened its doors in its new location that same day.
The merger, said AOC Executive Director Alan Gould Jr., is the culmination of months of discussion and planning between Tarrant County agencies on how to continue to best serve their target populations.
"We had been in discussions with TCAIN and Samaritan House [the Tarrant County agency that provides housing for low income people with HIV] since last summer about ways we could work together," Gould said.
The focus, he explained, was to combine forces to eliminate duplication of expenses so that the three agencies could, working in unison, still offer all the same programs and quality of service while at the same time saving money.
Officials with the three agencies agreed that the first step would be finding new facilities large enough to house all three organizations. But that was no easy task.
"We already all three had our offices in the Fort Worth medical district, and we wanted to find something in that same area, because we wanted our clients to still be able to find us and get to our offices without any problem," Gould said. "But we couldn’t find any facility, especially in the medical district, that was large enough, nothing that would give us the space we needed at a feasible price point per square foot."
And so the idea of the three agencies moving in together, so to speak, faded away.
But at the same time, Gould said, AOC was also looking for new facilities for itself.
"We had known for five or six years that we had outgrown our old space," Gould said. But the agency couldn’t even find space large enough at a reasonable price for AOC on its own, either.
"We had always had our offices in the Near South Side. It’s a centralized location, and [John Peter Smith Hospital] where a lot of our clients go was just a few blocks away. In fact, almost all of the public medical clinics and services that most of our clients use were all within a few blocks," Gould explained. "We wanted to stay in that area to make things as convenient as possible for the clients."
But then the agency surveyed its clients and learned something a little surprising.
"We found out our clients didn’t actually access services the way we thought they did. They didn’t make all their appointments all on the same day to make one trip" to the medical district. "They were going to different services on different days," he said.
So why not look in other areas? And as soon as they made that decision, Gould said, they found a flier advertising the space at 400 N. Beach.
The space — about 19,000 square feet — and the price were both right. And the location, on Fort Worth’s East Side, turned out to be just right, too.
Studies show that a large number of new infections in North Texas is occurring among Hispanics, and the area around the new building is heavily Hispanic.
"Another thing is that AOC serves all of Tarrant County. We had wanted to stay in the medical district so we would be centrally located. But the ironic thing is that, in terms of the county as a whole, our new location really is much more centrally located," Gould said. "We decided to take the deal. We just felt like it was the right move at the right time."
AOC officials were already working with the realty company handling the new space and with the Amon Carter Foundation — which had given the agency a grant to help fund the move — to make the move happen when they were once again approached by officials with TCAIN about sharing space.
"TCAIN is much smaller so their space needs were not as drastic as ours. But they did need more space than they had," Gould said, especially for their main program, the Geisel-Morris Dental Clinic for people with HIV.
"So we put a hold on the deal and started looking at altering the space [on Beach Street] to include TCAIN as a sub-tenant," Gould said,
About a month later, the plan changed again when TCAIN’s board of directors broached the idea of merging with AOC.
TCAIN, Gould said, "has a long and successful career in offering a number of vital programs in a way that’s much more personable and direct than you’d find at a larger agency."
But at the same time, the smaller organization had fewer resources to fall back on, especially over the past months as federal funding guidelines changed and recession set in and put a near-stranglehold on private donations.
So the boards for AOC and TCAIN met, the deal was sealed and letters were sent to the clients of both agencies to let them know of the impending changes. And the plan for the finish out in the new building underwent a few changes.
The new space
The new building — a sprawling, two-story space with gleaming glass and a well-groomed garden on the south end and a balcony running the length of the second floor — has 19,000 square feet of space, compared to the 9,000 square feet in AOC’s offices in the medical district, and the 3,000 square feet TCAIN had.
That’s plenty of room for programs from both agencies, including AOC’s Sandy Lanier Nutrition Center food pantry and TCAIN’s dental clinic, and AOC’s HIV-AIDS library, which has previously been housed in the agency’s satellite offices in Arlington.
The new space, Gould said, allows the agency to expand some services, like the dental clinic, immediately, and still have the space to expand again at a later date.
"Another great advantage to the move is that it really will allow for expansion of the case management and mental health counseling clinic," Gould said.
"This move is traumatic for us because of everything involved, but as traumatic as it is for us, it’s even more so for the clients we serve," he continued. "But at the same time, it is going to be so much better for everyone. For the first time, all the direct care services and programs are going to be under one roof. It will be a ‘one-stop shop.’ It will be the one place clients can come to get their medical referrals, their dental work, their case management, their counseling and all their basic daily essential needs met."
Although the TCAIN name will no longer be in use, Gould said that TCAIN staff will all be absorbed into AOC, just like the former agency’s programs are being absorbed.
"There will be changes in staff whatsoever," he said. "TCAIN only had three administrative staffers and they are all going to be part of AOC now, and they will all still be doing the same jobs for the most part."
Monique Johnson, who has been serving as TCAIN’s interim executive director, will join the AOC staff as an associate executive director. Even TCAIN’s board of directors will merge with the AOC personnel.
AOC’s bylaws requires up to 25 members. Both AOC and TCAIN had about 16 to 18 board members. About half of TCAIN’s board members had already decided not to return for another term, making enough room for the remaining members to join AOC’s existing board without exceeding the 25-member limit.
"We are definitely eager to include the TCAIN board members as an active and involved part of our board," Gould said. "It will help make our board even better."
The long term
Despite the dire economic straits the country has been in for the past months, Gould said he is confident about the future of the new AOC.
"In Tarrant County, we’ve been very lucky in talking about the strengths of various programs and about not competing for the same dollars, so that each agency can stay strong," he said. "But in an economic situation like this, when everyone is facing hardship of this magnitude, those with smaller budgets and fewer resources, like TCAIN, will always be challenged.
"And we’re very privileged to have been approached by them as a partner and to have reached an arrangement that makes us both better."
In the end, Gould added, it’s the client that matters most. And the clients are the big winners in this merger and move.
"Compassion and care are at the very center of what we’re all about, and that’s why we made these moves," Gould said. "We are here for those in need, and there has been no greater need than there is today. This means that we can meet those needs even better now, and in the future."
THE PROGRAMS OF AOC
AIDS Outreach Center of Tarrant County’s move into its new 19,000-square-foot home allows the agency not only to house its existing programs, but to bring over the HIV/AIDS library previously housed in AOC’s satellite office in Arlington, and to incorporate the Geisel-Morris Dental Clinic for people with HIV after AOC’s merger with the Tarrant Councty AIDS Interfaith Network.
In addition to the dental clinic, AOC’s programs include:
• HIV prevention and education for those who are, statistically, at a high risk for HIV infection. Staff members offer confidential testing for HIV and syphilis, both on the street and in the AOC offices.
• Medical case management services that address all aspects of an HIV-positive person’s health and well-being. Case management personnel coordinate client care in all areas from medical needs, groceries, nutritional counseling, emergency financial assistance for rent and utilities, health insurance assistance, legal referrals and transportation. All AOC medical case managers are licensed social workers.
• Mental health counseling in a full range of services from individual counseling to group counseling on issues from severe mental illness to addictions to coping with daily life with HIV.
• The Sandy Lanier Nutrition Center, the only food pantry in Tarrant County devoted soley to serving those with HIV and AIDS. The nutrition center is a free, in-house grocery story that emphasizes the link between good nutrition and remaining healthy despite being infected with HIV. A registered licensed dietician is on staff to assess clients’ individual needs and help them plan their diet accordingly.
• Youth services for those ages 4 to 18 who are infected or affected by HIV. It includes a supervised play area for children whose parents are shopping at the food pantry or with a counselor, an educational summer camp for children ages 6 to 12, and Santa’s Toy Store each year at Christmas.
• Health insurance assistance to pay premiums and allow clients to remain enrolled in their current insurance programs. The program also sometimes covers prescription medicine co-payments.
• Legal services offered through a partnership with Legal Hospice of Texas, which include assistance with SSI/SSDI, estate planning, intervening with landlords or creditors and ensuring that employers, medical insurers and medical personnel comply with all anti-discrimination and confidentiality laws regarding HIV/AIDS.
• Transportation assistance such as daily or monthly bus passes, MITS vouchers and cab vouchers to help clients access health care and related services.
• Information and referral services with both a local number and a toll-free 800 number available within Texas. AOC’s Web site provides general information about HIV/AIDS, fact sheets, answers to frequently asked questions and contacts, as well as links to national resources. The agency’s HIV/AIDS library is being relocated from the Arlington office.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 4, 2009.