St. Petersburg – William Harper of AIDS Service Association of Pinellas (ASAP) will be stepping down as executive director as he approaches 20 years with the organization.
Harper, who started with ASAP in May 1996, says that it has been a great opportunity for him to work for such an amazing organization, but that after two decades, it is time to move on.
“I’m a firm believer that if your heart or gut tells you ‘I’m tired, I’m rundown and you need to take care of yourself,’ that you need to listen to that. I just feel like I have come to that point,” Harper says.
Harper came to Florida after working several years as a music director for a church in Georgia.
“I had been outed by church officials in Georgia and was asked very politely to resign and move on,” Harper says. “It was an evangelical church and they said they didn’t appreciate my lifestyle.”
The move took him to Lakeland where his family lived, and he took a job at King of Peace MCC in St. Petersburg, commuting each day from home to the church.
While working at the church, Harper took a part-time job as a case manager for ASAP working 20 hours a week. He made the move over to St. Pete and made his way through the ranks.
“[I went] from case worker to manager and about eight years ago became the executive director,” Harper says. “I was talking to a counselor friend and he said, ‘One day you’re gonna be happy that this thing up in Georgia happened to you. I really hated him for saying that, but really it set me free, and I was able to come down here and be me and find a new path.”
Harper came on board with ASAP during a time when HIV/AIDS was still front page news across the world. It was a time when Broadway’s Rent was front and center on America’s stage and the discovery of antiretroviral medications started giving people living with the disease a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I loved being able to see people get started on those meds and able to do a 180 and start getting better,” Harper says. “It really empowered the community and it gave people hope, especially the LGBT community. It gave them a real boost in the arm, because we felt like, wow, we really can beat this thing.”
With drugs coming on the market that were making HIV a more manageable disease, new concerns started to arise. The caseloads for people needing assistance and to be placed on meds started going up and donations to AIDS services started dropping.
“We loved the fact that we were keeping folks instead of losing folks,” Harper says. “But it did create some challenges in how do we create the funding, how we’d create the resources, even the staffing, to meet the needs.”
Harper says when the funding started to go down, the community stepped up its efforts.
“The bars started holding fundraisers and the community really came out,” Harper says. “It went from memorial donations to fundraisers celebrating lives that could continue on.”
Through the years, Harper and ASAP have been able to add more services to help the community, including adding in mental and substance abuse counseling, a care clinic and the medical home, but what Harper is most proud to have been a part of is the in-house pharmacy that was established as part of the Home 3050 program.
“ASAP, even with the successful fundraisers Dine Out for Life and the Tampa Bay AIDS Walk, relies on grants for most of the funding that keeps it going,” Harper says. “With grants you never know when it comes back up a year from now, or a few years from now, [or] if you’re going to get it again, because we have to compete for them, and that’s just the way the system is.”
The pharmacy piece however adds a new stream of revenue back into the program and leaves sustainability for the organization that wasn’t there before.
“So if we do lose a grant or funding down the road, we aren’t just left out to dry. We will have the pharmacy revenue to help us retain those services,” Harper says.
20 years is a long time to be with the same organization, especially one so instrumental in fighting a disease that at one point was viewed as a death sentence, and that is something Harper is very proud to have been a part of.
“I have done a wonderful job since coming here to ASAP. I don’t mind saying it for myself, I have done a good job, but it has been because of my team who has helped me move this far,” Harper says. “Everybody asks, ‘what are you doing next?’ What I’m going to do is rest and relax and take a vacation. I know that sounds selfish, especially from a social worker, but we always tell our patients take care of you, but we don’t do it ourselves. So I’m gonna try and take care of myself.”