Trained as a minister and having worked in several congregations, the Rev. Deborah Warren didn’t foresee herself leading an HIV/AIDS organization. All that would change in the early 1990s as Warren was faced with the realities of the lingering effects of the harrowing AIDS Crisis.
Warren had just begun an internship at Carolinas Medical Center. There, she met AIDS patients face to face. She heard their stories. She felt their pain.
“I didn’t know that much about AIDS and, certainly earliest on, had that same kind of fear of contagion that other people had,” she says. “I would meet people who were going home from the hospital and most of the people I saw in the hospital didn’t really have enough support. You can imagine: a very sick person going home and trying to fend for themselves.”
What she experienced pulled on her heartstrings. She wondered why more people of faith just like her weren’t doing more to help those who, at this time, needed more support than ever.
In the 20 years since, Warren has turned her passion for service and care into a career and the organization she founded in 1992, the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network, or RAIN, has served literally thousands and thousands of those affected and infected by HIV.
This year, the group celebrates two decades of community service and lives changed for the better. And, though the organization celebrates, its leaders are quick to pause and remember that growth for their group hasn’t come without its share of hard times.
“I was at the hospital training as a chaplain and I also became the first chaplain assigned to the infectious disease clinic,” says the Rev. Debra Kidd, RAIN’s senior director of programs. “Just to watch the loneliness, the pain. Patients would come in for their visit and walk in. The next time you saw them they were using a walker or a cane. The next time they were in a wheelchair and the next time they couldn’t show up. It was just devastating.”
Warren and Kidd, affectionately dubbed “the Debbies” by those who know them, have patiently persevered since those sometimes-horrific days. They say attitudes have changed. Medicines have effectively killed the notion that AIDS is a death sentence. Families are growing into much better acceptance of their loved ones.
Warren says she’s also proud of the relationships RAIN has helped to build.
“A lot of different communities started coming together,” she says. “I’m most proud that we’ve brought so many different people together. That was not the intent when we were founded, but the commonality we’ve all found is that we care about AIDS, whether you are gay or straight, African-American or Caucasian, liberal or conservative, if you live in the wealthy Myers Park area or an area with fewer resources.”
Warren says RAIN has opened the door to “cross-boundary experiences” and says life-changing relationships have been built.
In their daily work, Warren and Kidd are on guard against changing funding models and other challenges facing those tasked with prevention and education. The biggest change, Warren says, is a shift from national and governmental funders from a broad-based prevention strategy to one targeting only HIV-positive people.
“Earlier on we had a much more robust community education program,” Warren says.
Despite the challenges, Kidd says RAIN has stuck to it. Their record sometimes surprises people, she says, who might not have guessed the organization would live so long.
Warren is confident the organization will continue to grow. Her dream: full care for those with HIV.
“I look forward to developing a model with a clinical partner where we truly serve all the needs of people with HIV,” Warren says. “We’ll have strong medical treatment and medication with the wrap-around supportive services.”
Kidd knows the future will bring changes. She and Warren, along with other RAIN staff, are ready.
“”We’re going to keep going,” she says. “We’ll show you. It’s hard. It might morph and do something else or different and it’s already done that in 20 years and had to. I look forward to the challenges what that’s going to be.” : :