AIDS Work first office, basement of Henry St. John Building, corner of Clinton and S. Geneva Sts

Ithaca LGBTQ History Walking Tour

AIDS Work first office, basement of Henry St. John Building, corner of Clinton and S. Geneva Sts

Ithaca, New York 14850, United States

Created By: Center for LGBT Education, Outreach & Services, Ithaca College


Founded in 1984, AIDS Work was the first local organization to serve the needs of people who are HIV positive. AIDS Work provided education and safer sex supplies and was committed to all components of their tagline "HIV Advocacy, Information & Support."

George Ferrari recalls, "When I was working as a Residence Director at Cornell around 1985, Gannett Health Services began HTLV3 [former name of HIV] testing. So as a result, it was the first time local people were getting positive test results. We knew that existing models for serving HIV positive people - all these programs were in metropolitan areas - just weren't going to work here."

When this work began, it was called the Tompkins County AIDS Task Force, and was funded by a grant from the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (Care) Act.

The initial work of the organization that became AIDS Work started with a buddy program and an end of life program. Public education and direct services were also developed. The first fiscal sponsor was Hospicare, and the second was Planned Parenthood of Tompkins County. Participants - Ferrari noted "we called them participants, not patients" - traveled to Upstate Medical in Syracuse for primary care at the time, because there were not yet medical services available in or near Ithaca.

At the time the next nearest AIDS services organization, Southern Tier AIDS Program, was located in Johnson City. But the model STAP was using did not match the philosophy and needs of the people working in Ithaca. So in Ithaca a new 501c3 organization was created, which became AIDS Work.

AIDS Work's first office was in the basement of the Henry St. John building, which they shared with the Displaced Homemaker's office (now the Women's Opportunity Center). AIDS Work set up a hotline.

Ferrari recalled, "Stephen Tropiano was a Residence Director at Ithaca College and had just moved to LA. He called us in the office one day in 1991 (he was sort of the 'AIDS Task Force Western Office') and said there was 'going to be some big news," and that we should be prepared for a lot of calls. The next day, basketball legend Magic Johnson held a press conference to share the news that he had tested HIV positive.

Ferrari and AIDS Work were also instrumental in starting the needle exchange program in Ithaca. At the time, the closest needle exchanges were in Rochester and New York City. Needles were still illegal to possess without a doctor's prescription. Through meetings with county legislators, the county sheriff, district attorney, chief of police, head of the hospital, and the Bang's (Ambulance) family this initiative took shape. STAP was interested in branching out into Ithaca because of this needle exchange program.

Ferrari recalls "One of the first people to die was a man named Wayne, whose nickname was "Jingle Jock" because he always had bells in his jock strap that would jingle as he walked. We worked with MJ Herson to arrange Wayne's service. During calling hours at the funeral home, Wayne was laid out in full leather, with Diana Ross playing in the background."

He also emphasized that their approach was to connect with people where they are. This was not really the focus of other AIDS services organizations at that time. So materials like stickers with information about safer sex were created. They ended up being affixed to many bathroom walls around the area. Ferrari also co-hosted the local public access television program HIV TV during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

AIDS Work later grew and moved to an office on the second floor of the DeWitt Mall building, above Moosewood Restaurant. It later merged with Southern Tier AIDS Program, with locations in Ithaca, Elmira, Binghamton, and Johnson City.

Ferrari said "Why did I do it? I felt it was part of my responsibility. Ithaca and Ithacans have a can-do spirit that never settles for the status quo. To have this be locally controlled was very important to all of us."

This point of interest is part of the tour: Ithaca LGBTQ History Walking Tour


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