Making a Difference: Keeping the Fight Alive

This nonprofit serves Hawaii’s HIV population and underscores prevention.

Client Keith Kuewa also volunteers for the Life Foundation.

Photo: David Croxford

Six years ago, Keith Kuewa learned he was HIV positive while in prison. “When I found out, I wanted to hang myself, kill myself, do anything but live,” he says. That was until a registered nurse who had been working with Kuewa brought him to Life Foundation.

Life Foundation is a local HIV and AIDS prevention and assistance nonprofit, founded by Jack Law and Dr. David McEwan, in 1983. Both men recognized that Hawaii needed a way of combating the rapid spread of HIV. “McEwan knew that this health issue, which didn’t even have a name yet, would not be limited to San Francisco, New York or L.A.,” says Paul Groesbeck, who has been the nonprofit’s executive director for 16 years.

The nonprofit fights HIV in Hawaii on two fronts: through education, to prevent the spread of HIV, and by providing those who have HIV a safe atmosphere. Its 600 clients can receive counseling and meals as well as medical and housing assistance through social-service organization partnerships. Life Foundation also works to dispel the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS.

For Kuewa, Life Foundation has been a second home since his release from prison in 2006. He even volunteers, helping with its mailouts and twice-a-week meal programs. Kuewa is also in the nonprofit’s five-member Speaker’s Bureau. “I have to give back,” he says. “It’s about time I start doing something not only for myself, but for the community, for Life Foundation. What they did for me was unbelievable.” In order to increase awareness and education about the spread of HIV, Kuewa speaks to students, drug rehab participants and community members, sharing his story of being in and out of jail and how he contracted HIV through drug use.

In addition to education and case-management services, one of  Life Foundation’s biggest prevention services is confidential, no-appointment-needed testing. “It takes 20 minutes to get the results and we do it all right here,” says Groesbeck. Life Foundation was the first in the state to use rapid HIV testing, and last year tested more than 2,000 people, or around 200 a month, with 30 testing positive. Although negative results are more common, the staff and volunteers at Life Foundation talk with clients about changing potentially risky behaviors.

“Testing isn’t going to keep you from getting HIV, it’s just going to let you know sooner if you have it [or not],” says Kandice Johns, the nonprofit’s event manager.

The nonprofit also started a one-for-one needle exchange program, providing clients with sterile needles. “Having a statewide needle exchange has kept HIV out of the needle-using public,” says Groesbeck. It currently refers its clients to volunteers for the CHOW Project—Community Health Outreach Work to Prevent AIDS—which offers the exchange service. While people are still abusing illegal drugs, it has not increased the number of drug users, but has decreased the number of people contracting HIV every year.

With its counseling, testing and service programs and education, Life Foundation has helped lower the state’s number of HIV-positive cases. For example, the number of women contracting HIV has dropped 14 percent in the past few years. Groesbeck has received letters from the federal government denying Life Foundation funding because it doesn’t have enough HIV and AIDS cases. “I’m delighted that Honolulu doesn’t qualify, because to qualify there would have had to be a lot more people who died and a lot more people who have AIDS. We’re going to just keep going until we qualify for nothing.”

Participate in the 18th annual Honolulu AIDS Walk on April 19th to raise money for Life Foundation or visit to make a donation.

[Edited April 13]