Volunteer Spotlight: Tom Slama

In 1992, Tom Slama first walked through the doors of the UCSF AIDS Health Project, now the Alliance Health Project (AHP), with a goal, to be of service to his community. AHP had no volunteer HIV test counselor program, so HIV Testing Coordinator Barb Adler had to turn Tom away—not once, but twice.

tom-and-barbAt the height of the epidemic, AIDS was the number one cause of death for all men in the city. Tom was an AIDS hotline volunteer for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, but he yearned for face-to-face contact  “As a gay man, it was difficult witnessing friends and neighbors being struck by AIDS,” Tom said. “I wanted to help in person.”

Tom never relented. His insistence—he came back a third time, and inspired AHP’s decision to start training, supporting, and engaging volunteer test counselors, a move that expanded our capacity to help the community.

The epidemic was massive: one in four clients tested positive for HIV disease, a disease for which there was no cure, and not yet even a treatment. Adler and her team debated how to meet both the rising demand for testing and the rising rate of burnout among test counselors who had to tell clients bad news over and over again. At that time, standard “pre-test counseling,” during which clients learned about HIV and HIV prevention, could not offer clients the one-on-one experience necessary to reduce the risk of contracting HIV. When Tom walked in a third time, Adler and her colleague, Francis Salmeri, had their answer.

With the help of AHP’s deputy director Joanna Rinaldi, Adler and Salmeri developed a pilot program for one-to-one risk assessment with Tom as the first volunteer HIV test counselor. Over time, AHP trained more volunteers. “The pilot worked, and over the next twenty years, AHP trained over 600 counselors, enabling the program to triple the number of clients our HIV test counselors could help,” Adler said.

AHP salutes Tom Slama for his compassion, dedication, and tenacity. He inspired us to re-think how to best serve the community and helped us become what we are today, one of the leading HIV testing providers in the country. Thank you to all of our HIV test counselor volunteers—past and present. As a result of Tom’s first step and your commitment, we have provided HIV prevention counseling and testing to thousands and thousands of San Franciscans.