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AIDS Services Foundation rebrands, expands, leaving longtime supporters unhappy

Laguna Beach residents Al Roberts and Ken Jillson founded AIDS Services Foundation (ASF) in 1985, eventually turning it into one of the county’s most respected HIV/AIDS nonprofit organizations.

But the organization has changed its name to Radiant Health Centers — and some longtime board members are displeased.

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Mark Gonzales, vice president of Radiant’s board of directors, tells me the name change is part of “expanding services.”

“According to a recent analysis, nearly 9,000 LGBT residents in Orange County have no health insurance, and nearly 30,000 are underinsured and receive their healthcare through safety net systems and government-financed health programs,” Gonzales says.

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He went on to explain that as HIV and AIDS treatments have evolved, many AIDS service organizations have done the same to meet client needs.

“Despite our great strides over the decades, six people per week in Orange County test positive for HIV,” he says.

The agency served 1,400 clients in 2017.

He tells me the “more inclusive name [Radiant] is an important first step toward providing the additional health services to those at risk.”

Radiant plans to offer an expanded array of mental and behavioral health services to members of the LGBT community who are HIV negative, helping them deal with addiction, housing needs, nutrition and PrEP services — pills that can reduce the chances of HIV infection — to those who are at highest risk for contracting HIV.

Not everyone is happy with the changes and the manner in which they came about.

Anita May Rosenstein, whose family has donated upward of $2.5 million to ASF in the past 20 years, has decided to leave the advisory board.

“An evolution in mission does not require the abandonment of legacy and, in my opinion, ASF’s current rebranding efforts are exactly that: an abandonment of a positive, respected, even revered, organizational legacy that took more than 30 years to build,” she writes in her resignation letter. “The current decision to abandon this recognizable brand for a generic, non-descript and over-used brand name (Radiant Health Services) that will take years to distinguish seems ill-founded and, in many ways, disrespectful of those who have served and been served by this organization for decades. It is a decision I cannot embrace.”

Rosenstein understands the desire to evolve and points to another organization she supports: AIDS Project Los Angeles, which changed its name to APLA Health a few years ago, keeping in place the original branding. She feels ASF should have followed its lead.

“The decision to proceed with the rebranding took many things into consideration,” Gonzales says, including the viewpoints of founders, donors and more than 100 others — 13 of 16 board members, clients, donors, staff, volunteers and other important stakeholders among them.

Rosenstein says she wasn’t consulted.

“Wouldn’t you go to one of the largest donors and talk about this?” she asks.

Fellow Advisory Council board members Marilyn Brewer, a former state assemblywoman, and Pearl Jemison-Smith, a nurse who helped organize Orange County’s first AIDS walk, also resigned.

After 20 years of involvement Brewer wrote:

“The cavalier manner in which the executive committee of the board of directors shared the so-called new direction with the Advisory Council was reprehensible and disrespectful. It is abundantly clear to me that the current executive committee of the board of directors finds us irrelevant.”

Jemison-Smith says when she resigned last month after 30 years of service, she received only one thank you letter — and that was from Jillson.

Roberts says he’s confused by all of this.

“It’s getting messy and that’s why I want out,” Roberts says.

Roberts and Jillson’s vision of ASF is no more. They say they won’t support Radiant.

And like Brewer, Jemison-Smith and Rosenstein asked their names be removed from Radiant’s website and marketing materials.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard rumblings things weren’t going well within ASF.

In April 2016 I was contacted by sources within the agency alleging high employee turnover and other issues.

No one I interviewed would go on the record, so I passed the concerns over to county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who asked the county to open an investigation since ASF receives county and federal funding.

Nothing ever came of it.

“Basically everyone we interviewed wouldn’t speak up and provide facts, so we couldn’t move an investigation forward,” Bartlett says.

This new name controversy is troubling to me. I chaired the Friends of Dorothy Guild of ASF from 2007-12 and served on the ASF board of directors.

Though Jillson’s and Robert’s resignation letters remained upbeat — they thanked supporters who shared their vision for ASF over the decades — the fact is they’ve stepped away. I suspect many of their friends will as well, leaving Radiant to blaze its own new trail.

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