After Years of Instability, Arkansas AIDS Foundation Closes

Contributing Editor
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On Feb. 25, the Arkansas AIDS Foundation (also known as Consortia Care of Arkansas), one of the largest HIV service organizations in the state, ceased operation. This nonprofit, which served the capital city of Little Rock and surrounding areas, closed its doors and left clients frightened and vulnerable, according to the organization's current leadership.

The Arkansas AIDS Foundation (AAF) was established in 1992 in response to the AIDS crisis in the state. Similar to organizations of its kind throughout the country, AAF provided services and case management for people living with HIV, as well as safer sex and prevention education for the wider community. In addition to a board of directors, the organization had a small staff to serve clients, and was funded mainly through community efforts and government support.

So what happened within the organization, which supported many people affected by HIV in this Bible-Belt state, that led to its closure? And what does the future hold for the community it once served?

Shaky Base of Leadership

Eric Reece is acting president of the board of directors for the organization. An Arkansas native, past AAF volunteer and longtime advocate for HIV and LGBTQ issues in the state, Reece joined the AAF board in early 2019. He said that the organization had been in trouble for quite some time.

Even from its formation, according to Reece, the priorities of AAF's leadership seemed inconsistent with the organization's work. "It was like they just wanted to form this organization and raise money by throwing wine-and-cheese parties and things like that," Reece said, "and that's all they wanted to do."

Stephanie Willbanks-Harris served on the organization's board of directors in the early 2000s. Her involvement stemmed from a passion to help people living with the virus. She said that even then, the leadership and organizational structure of the board were not sound. "There was a shake-up on the board, because it had just allowed people to join who weren't adding any value," said Willbanks-Harris. "People would nominate somebody and we'd vote and let them on the board, and we'd never see them again. It got to be a little squishy about how people got on the board and what their roles were going to be."

Throughout the 2000s, as the organization's board structure remained uncertain, the needs of its clients were also changing. A population that had been sick and dying from AIDS was now surviving with HIV due to the introduction of effective HIV treatment in 1996.

This was Cornelius Mabin's experience as an AAF board member in the mid-2000s. He recalled that some board members at the time were out of touch with the needs of clients, or even lacked basic knowledge of HIV. "I think a lot of them … were there just to raise money, and that's important, but there were board members who didn't even know what an HIV drug was," he said. "They couldn't even name one."

About 2003-2004, the organization started dealing with housing for people living with HIV, according to Reece. Housing assistance had been administered through the Arkansas Department of Health. "Then the federal HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] made a decision that large metropolitan areas like Little Rock could actually have separate funds," Reece explained. "So AAF worked with the city of Little Rock to administer that program." This was the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS program, also known as HOPWA.

The organization also went through several executive directors throughout the 2000s, current leaders shared, which weakened the leadership structure. According to Reece, effects of those weaknesses really began to show around 2011 or 2012. "I think it's when [the organization] really started running into issues," Reece said. "They had trouble in terms of shifting and dealing with the growing [HIV] population that was people of color. In Arkansas, that's mainly the Hispanic/Latino community and the African-American community." Although the needs of the community had evolved, the organization's focus had not.

"They were still trying to do the same model," Reece said, "fundraising with wine-and-cheese parties , without any real community engagement -- at least, none that I could see."

Challenges With Accounting -- and Accountability to Community

In 2013, then-executive director Michael Cannon announced that he would be leaving the organization. He appointed Portia Knowlton as his successor. This was unconventional, since it is common practice in a nonprofit for the board of directors to be in charge of leadership transitions and to hire the executive director.

Carleisha Murry was working at the organization as a part-time case worker. "Portia was an apprentice, a college student at the time. She was assisting [Cannon] and on the junior board," Murry said. Knowlton was not qualified to take over as director, Murry recalled, and Cannon stepped on the board's toes by appointing her. "She was really unlearned," Murry said, "and everyone [on the board] was like, 'We don't have any faith in her.' And everyone just quit."

The entire board of directors resigned en masse.

Reece confirmed that this was the case. "Then the infrastructure of the Arkansas AIDS Foundation pretty much fell down, or was just abandoned at that point," he said.

But the organization pushed on in its work, with Knowlton as the new executive director.

"She pretty much appointed a board of directors that were her friends," Reece said of Knowlton. "That board of directors didn't understand, or had no knowledge, or willfully just gave her the power and didn't have any kind of oversight or accountability."

Much of Knowlton's lack of knowledge was overlooked in the glow of her charm, according to Murry. "She developed relationships based on a look and a smile," Murry said. "You know how some people have the gift of gab? Well, that's how she was."

In the meantime, the organization was conducting business as usual. They were administering the HOPWA funds with the city of Little Rock and trying to grow as an organization, adding more staff to serve clients. But these activities were taking the organization deeper and deeper into debt. "The foundation didn't have the capacity to bring on more staff, in terms of the ability to pay them or administer benefits or payroll taxes," Reece said.

Knowlton remained at the helm of AAF until 2015, when she was succeeded by Kendra Torrence, who stayed on as director for two years. According to Reece, not much changed during Torrence's time as leader of the organization. "When you look back," he said, "things were messed up during all that time, from 2012 on."

Mabin agreed. "Everything pretty much stayed the same with Portia into Kendra," he said. "[Kendra's] appearance and disappearance are shrouded in mystery."

"And then Portia just popped back up," Murry said. In 2017, Knowlton returned to the foundation as executive director.

But her second tenure was short. In the fall of 2018, Knowlton decided to take a position in another city and offered Carleisha Murry the role of executive director. (Attempts to reach Knowlton for comment via phone, email and Facebook went unanswered.) At that point, the results of lack of management and oversight by the former director became even clearer.

"From 2013 through 2017, the Arkansas AIDS Foundation's own administration, its board of directors and executive directors, were really not good stewards of the organization," said Reece. "Luckily, [Murry] was someone who began asking questions and seeing that things were not right."

Murry called Cornelius Mabin to come back to AAF as a consultant. According to Murry, Mabin discovered many problems with the basic workings of the organization. "When you run a nonprofit, you have to file an annual [Form] 990, reporting your funds on a federal level," Reece explained. Among Mabin's biggest findings was that the organization had not filed a Form 990 since 2012, and its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status was being revoked. This meant that all of its government funding, including housing funds for clients, was not going to be available.

"The city of Little Rock was the grantee for HUD, and the Arkansas AIDS Foundation was the contractor with the city," Reece continued. "As the grantee, they're responsible for compliance. And one of the things we discovered was that the city of Little Rock staff member that was in charge of compliance was continually giving the foundation a pass on all the checks. So the city of Little Rock didn't do its due diligence."

Once Murry discovered that the organization was not in compliance with federal paperwork and had lost its nonprofit status, she and Mabin quickly teamed with Little Rock officials to try to get back on track. But it was too late. To make matters worse, rent on the office was overdue.

"It was a mess," Murry said. "Everything just fell in my lap, and I tried to get the city of Little Rock to help, but there was nothing we could do. We had clients lined up outside, and all we could do was refer them to the city." Approximately 50 clients relied on the Arkansas AIDS Foundation to receive their HOPWA benefits, and more than 50 others were on a waiting list.

Mabin coordinated a community call to action via social media, asking Little Rock residents to contact the city's Community Development staff and inquire: "What's the HOPWA plan, and when are we going to hear about it?"

When Beverly Arbor, the community development planner for the city of Little Rock, was contacted for this article, she responded with this brief comment: "The clients are still receiving HOPWA assistance while the City is requesting proposals for a new project sponsor."

Reevaluating, Rebuilding and Rebranding

On Feb. 20, the Arkansas AIDS Foundation's leadership received notification from Arbor that the organization would not receive further funding. With no other options, they closed the office doors on Monday, Feb. 25.

But Arkansans are made of tough stuff, and these leaders are not giving up. Reece told TheBody that the city of Little Rock has since given the HOPWA program to Pulaski County to administer. And Carleisha Murry has continued to fight for the needs of the clients.

"I've reached out to people I know in the community, people I've worked with before, to develop an interim board," Murry said. "We're trying to see what steps we need to take in order to get this organization reestablished. There's so much negative connotation with the Arkansas AIDS Foundation because of the lack of management. That's why we're going to rebrand our name. We're trying to come back as strong as possible."

"We're in a reorganization mode," Reece said. "We're going to get our tax-exempt status back, so we have to go back to the IRS. We've been in negotiation with another housing program in the city that has agreed to be our fiscal sponsor until we raise funds. We're going to call it our 'Save Our Services' project." He said that the new organization and its leadership will remain focused on the needs of the HIV community, case management and testing, and other ancillary services.

Mabin said that the new organization will be called the Strilite Foundation, named for Striving for Enlightenment. "We're still going to be working [on] HIV, obviously, and HIV criminalization and access to care, but we want to broaden the scope of our work and have a new day and a new focus.

"We also want to keep an eye on HOPWA," he added, "because that's an important component for those living with HIV."

The current organizational board includes legal experts, accountants, a retired teacher and social workers. "We have an array of different people on the board," Murry said, "and we're pushing transparency. We don't want our company in the dark. What's covered up cannot heal. I want this foundation to move forward and do great things."

The new team is forming with a goal of getting back to the original mission of the organization. "We're trying to help these individuals," Murry said. "You know, people. People need our services."