The ACO’s new address on 19 Main Street.
The AIDS Committee of Ottawa (also known as ACO) is a community-based, non-profit, social justice organization that provides free, confidential services for people living with, affected by and at risk of HIV/AIDS in Ottawa.
ACO started as a small group of gay men and lesbians in 1985. During its 30 years, it has grown to include many participants, volunteers, staff members and community partners. ACO’s goals include reducing the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV, and enhancing the quality of life people living with HIV/AIDS experience.
Ottawa Life Magazine had the chance to tour the offices ACO. The two story office, now located on 19 Main Street, houses ACO’S administration services, along with educational and prevention services, and areas referred to as the Tool Shed and The Living Room.
Warm and welcoming, ACO strives to create a space in which the human rights and dignity of people affected by HIV/AIDS are respected and valued.
ACO’s Education and Prevention team works within the community to reduce the spread of HIV transmission through multiple facets. The team looks to empower people living with HIV/AIDS to be central in their work, collaborating with local grass roots initiatives through community development, as well as providing outreach at local bars, bathhouses and special events.
A unique space called The Tool Shed provided by ACO is a part of its harm reduction program. It offers harm reduction services and education. It is a community partner to Ottawa’s Needle Exchange Program and Safer Inhalation Program.
The Tool Shed works with the community in challenging the stigma and discrimination of people who use substances, as well as providing information regarding safer substance use.
The Living Room is another fantastic resource at ACO. It provides an array of free, confidential, practical and psychosocial services for its members.
The Living Room provides advocacy resources, as well as crisis intervention, holistic health promotion, a food bank, a soup and sandwich program, bus tickets, laundry facilities, Internet and fax, as well as subsidized YMCA gym memberships.
Other resources include: complementary therapies supported by qualified therapists, referrals to health/social/legal and immigration services as well as multiple socials and groups.
Ottawa Life Magazine had the opportunity to meet with Khaled Salam, the Executive Director of ACO.
Khaled Salam has been with ACO for over 12 years. He works as their the Executive Director, and within seconds of meeting Salam, it’s clear that he takes pride in ACO’s services as well as the new location.
“We wanted to bring together our past and our future. With the Living Room, we wanted to create something that was very homey and cozy, not very institutional. People can come in and feel that they are in a home.”
ACO’s new space opened on December 1, 2014, coinciding with World AIDS Day.
When asked if he feels that the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS has lessened over his time with ACO, Salam feels strongly that the stigma is still present.
“30 years ago the stigma was different in that people were dying. There was very little information and a lot of fear. Because of this, there was a different kind of stigma. The stigma has changed in certain ways, but it’s still there.”
Salam does admit that information has become widely and readily available. However, there is more work to be done.
“I feel that (the stigma) is still there because of how HIV/AIDS is transmitted. Sex and drugs are the two primary modes of transmitting and both are highlight stigmatized in our society. Until we take out the stigma from sex and drugs, the stigma of HIV/AIDS will always be there.”
This stigma and discrimination have been of ACO’s biggest challenges.
“I had this moment when one of our founders (who was being interviewed for the Project) was talking about securing office space because stigma was running rampant. Believe it or not, while we were in the process for finding space, we faced similar challenges 30 years later.”
The Legacy Project was born out of an idea to combat the stigma related to HIV/AIDS.
The Project celebrates ACO’s milestone 30th anniversary. One component of the project includes the coffee table book ACO XXX: Our Words Our Stories Our Lives.
The title was a wink to the three decades ACO has been a non-profit, as well as hinting to a message of sex positivity that the group upholds.
In what Salam refers to as the “heart and soul” of the book, ACO XXX contains 38 interviews and photos of founders of the movement, people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as people who have been affected by HIV/AIDS.
All those interviewed and photographed are citizens of Ottawa.
Quite appropriately, the book ends with looking ahead at ACO’s future. Salam feels that the book sheds light on who is impacted by HIV/AIDS, how it feels to be stigmatized and was written in a way that people can connect with.
Another component of the project is a digital copy of the book that can be viewed on the website. The website will also showcase video blogs of those featured in the book.
On September 19, the interviews will be live on the website, providing an up close and personal look at those who are willing to share their story with the world.
The final component is a fundraiser.
“We are not attaching a dollar value to the book. We want to put the book out there as much as we can. If people feel that we have done some level of justice to the HIV/AIDS movement, or we have been able to succeed in providing some level of awareness to HIV/AIDS, then please donate back to our services and programs of what you feel is appropriate,” says Salam.
Along with donations, ACO has partnered with Value Village to create the 30/30/30 project.
The 30’s reference the number of days the deal with Value Village will be (from August 19 to September 19), to the number of pounds of clothing suggested to drop off, to the number of years ACO has been in action.
ACO encourages those who need to do a little closet cleaning to drop off 30 pounds (or approximately 2 garbage bags full) of donations to Value Village. If you say “ACO” when you drop off your donations, you will receive a 20% off coupon for Value Village.
The limited time offer ends on September 19, 2015.
Salam hopes that the community will be proud of the project as a whole, and that it is also important to recognize that the HIV movement is very difficult to recount, due to the multiple deaths related to HIV/AIDS.
“This is our humble attempt at doing some kind of justice,” he says.