In October 1982, the four founders of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) – Nancy Cole Sawaya, Matt Redman, Ervin Munro and Max Drew – attended an emergency meeting at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. The meeting featured a presentation by a representative from San Francisco's Kaposi’s Sarcoma Foundation about Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease (GRID), one of the early names for AIDS.
Because fears about the new disease were rampant, these four friends set up a telephone hotline to answer questions from the community. They gathered the limited information available and began hotline trainings, with twelve volunteers in the initial group. The hotline was operated from a closet in the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, where volunteers answered a single telephone and read information from a one-page fact sheet.
Realizing that funds were needed to educate the community and prevent the spread of the disease, the founders enlisted the help of other friends (who became many of APLA's early volunteers) and held a Christmas benefit. The party raised more than $7,000, which became the seed money for a new organization. Recognizing that AIDS was not just a gay disease, the founders named the organization AIDS Project Los Angeles. The first Board of Directors was elected on January 14, 1983. In 2013, the agency marks its 30th year of operation.
From the beginning, the number of clients served by APLA grew at a staggering rate. In early 1983, there were five clients. At the end of 1983, there were 100, and by the middle of 1984 there were 200.
APLA's first client service began when early volunteers visited patients at their hospital beds. Support groups were also organized to help people with AIDS and their loved ones. When a professional social worker joined the small APLA staff in late 1983, Client Services became fully established.
APLA created new programs during the ensuing years to meet the growing needs of people with AIDS. A program to address housing needs, begun in 1984, has since become a comprehensive Residential Services Program. In March 1985, the APLA Dental Clinic was founded to treat people with AIDS who were denied services by other dentists.
Other groundbreaking programs have included medical transportation, home health care, and counseling on mental health, legal, insurance and public benefits issues. These were later joined by case management, substance abuse counseling, and treatment education.
In 1983, the agency also produced and distributed its first brochure on AIDS. It answered basic questions about the disease in English and Spanish. APLA has educated the community ever since to prevent new cases of HIV infection, to empower communities to stay healthy, and to improve the quality of life for people who are living with HIV.
APLA's first major educational campaign launched two years later, in 1985. The now-famous "LA Cares" ads were produced in conjunction with the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. They featured a sweet and motherly character who taught her "boys" about safer sex. Comprised of billboards, public service announcements and print advertising, the campaign included graphic safer sex guides for gay men titled "Can We Talk?" and "Mother's Handy Sex Guide." For a wider audience, APLA and the Center ran a "Southern California Cares" campaign, with the theme "Fight the Fear with the Facts."
APLA's educational publications began with Living With AIDS: A Self-Care Manual, which was first published in 1985, and have since included countless brochures, fact sheets, comic books, magazines and safer sex kits. Education programs have included a speaker's bureau, an HIV testing outreach program, AIDS in the workplace seminars, skills workshops, condom distribution efforts and community education forums.
From its earliest years, efforts to influence public policy have been a core component of APLA’s mission. In May 1983, APLA sponsored a candlelight march at the Federal Building in Westwood that brought out a crowd of more than 5,000 people. The march was a turning point for community involvement in the struggle against AIDS.
From the start, APLA took an aggressive and far-sighted approach to public policy, recognizing that advocacy at all governmental levels is vital to protecting the rights of people impacted by AIDS and to increasing funds for care and research. In August 1985, APLA coordinated testimony before the Los Angeles City Council on discrimination against people with AIDS, and Los Angeles became the first city in the nation to bar such discrimination. When the need for a stronger voice on AIDS issues at the national level became apparent, APLA helped to support a number of new national organizations, playing a leadership role in the creation of the Washington, DC-based AIDS Action.
In 1986, APLA established a Government Affairs Division. Its goals were to increase state and local resources for AIDS prevention, education and care, as well as to promote fair and humane HIV/AIDS legislation.
Continued engagement in public policy discourse is essential in shaping society’s response to the AIDS epidemic. Using both words and actions, people with HIV/AIDS have obtained life-saving resources and advocated for sensible legislation. In the early 1980s, activists played a vital role in securing funding for health care services and medical research for a mysterious disease that had already claimed thousands of lives. In 1990, community advocates worked alongside legislators in developing the framework of The Ryan White CARE Act.
Many early fundraising events were held in gay bars and discos as the gay and lesbian community mobilized to fight AIDS. An early fundraiser at Studio One in March 1984, featuring Joan Rivers, raised $45,000 for APLA, L.A. Shanti, and Aid for AIDS.
Since then, volunteers from many communities have produced hundreds of successful fundraising events. Throughout its history, APLA has raised money through events including Commitment to Life, Dance-athon, Focus on AIDS, Summer Party™, Toy Box, fashion events, The Concert: 20 Years of AIDS, The Envelope, Please: An Oscar® Viewing Party, The Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event (S.T.A.G.E.), A Thanksgiving Moment, Art Project Los Angeles, and countless other grassroots events.
APLA held the world's first AIDS Walk Los Angeles event on July 28, 1985. The organizers of AIDS Walk Los Angeles hoped to raise $100,000 that first year, but instead a tide of more than 4,500 walkers raised $673,000. AIDS Walk Los Angeles has since raised over $69 million for AIDS Project Los Angeles and other local AIDS organizations.
Another of APLA’s first fundraisers, Commitment to Life, raised millions for the agency, largely due to the persistence of the late APLA supporter Elizabeth Taylor.
APLA has also been the beneficiary of grants from city, county, state and federal agencies; gifts of money and in-kind services from businesses and corporations; grants from foundations; and generous contributions from a multitude of individual donors.
In 2001, APLA moved into its present offices, on Kingsley Drive and on Wilshire Boulevard. Through the early part of the decade, the agency expanded its Necessities of Life Program food pantry network, opening sites in Long Beach and South Los Angeles in 2002.
In 2003, the agency launched The Red Circle Project, an HIV prevention program targeting the Native American / Alaska Native population throughout L.A. County. That year, APLA also sent its first online action alert through In the Loop, its newly created online advocacy network.
In 2004, APLA Dental Services marked its 20th year of operation, and the agency expanded its dental operations with the addition of a mobile clinic that continues to provide oral health care at scheduled stops countywide.
By the end of 2005, APLA had begun its first international partnership, a project with India-based AIDS service provider YRG CARE. The initiative offered multilingual HIV care and prevention services to women in Tamil Nadu, one of India’s regions hit hardest by the epidemic.
APLA subsequently continued to expand its international efforts with an HIV prevention program for gay men in China; prevention, research, training, and advocacy efforts in Latin America; and a nutrition initiative in South Africa.
In 2006, APLA became the Secretariat to the Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF). Guided by a Steering Committee of 20 members from 17 countries situated mainly in the Global South, MSMGF works to promote MSM health and human rights worldwide through advocacy, information exchange, knowledge production, networking, and capacity building. As its Secretariat, APLA provides administrative and fiscal support.
In 2008, APLA released No Mas en el Tintero, a groundbreaking document to assess gay men’s needs in Central America and to offer strategies to reduce rates of HIV infection among this population in the region.
APLA has also continued to expand on its commitment to serve the diverse South Los Angeles community. In 2009, the agency opened its S. Mark Taper Foundation Center, a freestanding dental clinic and food pantry. And in 2011, the agency relocated its HIV prevention programs to a new site in Baldwin Hills along a light rail line offering service throughout South L.A.