About 30 miles north of New York City, on a quiet suburban stretch of Route 9W in the town of Congers, New York is the home of Together Our Unity Can Heal (TOUCH), a community-based organization with a mission to provide compassionate services to family, friends, and neighbors living with HIV and other chronic illnesses.

TOUCH’s medical case management and food and nutrition programs receive Ryan White Part A funding from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which is administered through Public Health Solutions. Our Contracting and Management Services (CAMS) division began administering this in 2015.

Executive Director Robert Maher has seen the evolution of TOUCH firsthand throughout the years, starting out volunteering, then serving on the Board, and eventually becoming the Executive Director. Rob remembers when the organization was primarily a buddy program, with volunteers feeding those with HIV/AIDS just to keep them alive.

Today, TOUCH provides medical case management services, supportive case management, support groups, individual counseling, and medical nutrition therapy (MNT) food services to those living with HIV and other chronic illnesses in Orange, Rockland, Ulster, and Sullivan counties.

Understanding the distinct needs of each community TOUCH serves has made the organization truly unique. “Staff understand the needs of the people we serve,” says Rob. “We don’t refer to our clients as ‘clients’. We refer to the people we serve as ‘members’. The people we serve recognize they are members of something bigger, ‘A second family’ is often a term we hear and our members respond very well to that.” The majority of TOUCH’s members are reflective of the community at large – Haitian, Caribbean and Latino, and mostly women, acquiring HIV mainly through their male partners.

“We don’t refer to our clients as ‘clients’. We refer to the people we serve as ‘members’.”

TOUCH’s case managers work closely with each member, ensuring they are linked to a primary care physician and ensuring that they keep their appointments, in addition to connecting them with county and community services, including transportation.

The food and nutrition program includes a large and well-stocked pantry of nutritious food, where members can shop and consult with the part-time dietitian on staff. If a member cannot come in, TOUCH’s staff will take food orders over the phone, pack, and have the food delivered. Staff recognize that a person living with a chronic illness is not able to address their health needs if they do not have access to basic nutritious food items that they can eat and enjoy.

These kind of services are crucial for members like Lillian, who is living with HIV.

Lillian has been a member of TOUCH for 20 years. She came to the United States from Haiti over two decades ago. She obtained visas for her husband and two children, ages six and eight at the time, so they could also come to the US. One year after Lillian and her family were living in the US, her husband told her of his HIV diagnosis, and passed away shortly after. Before her husband died, he told her she needed to get tested. She did, and then received the news that she too was HIV positive.

“I was working cleaning homes when I was tested positive for HIV. When I found out, I wanted to kill myself. Why me? Who was going to take care of my children?” says Lillian. “Then, the woman I worked for recommended going to TOUCH for services. After I came here, I started feeling better about myself. The staff here are wonderful, and made me feel like I was a family member. I learned how to eat better, shop for food better, and the importance of taking my medication daily.”

Lillian’s children are in their 20’s now, and both are in college. Her daughter is a nurse, and Lillian also wants to start taking English and nursing classes to further her career and education goals.

“I don’t feel sick. When you wake up in the morning, and put your feet on the ground, you can do anything,” says Lillian.

HIV, once a death sentence, is now treatable, and easier to manage than diabetes. “Long story short,” says Rob “education surrounding knowing your HIV status and that you can live a healthy, active life is still lacking.”

There is more in store for ways TOUCH serves their community. They have received additional funding to expand their mission to work with people who have other chronic illnesses by using their HIV model of care and service. Preliminary results of these efforts have been positive, demonstrating lower cholesterol rates and greater glucose monitoring with members diagnosed with obesity and diabetes. TOUCH is  working with a larger collaborative initiative in Rockland County regarding nutrition and chronic illness, in addition to partnering with the Medicaid Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment Program (DSRIP) to work with and track diabetics by working closely with them regarding healthy eating, and making healthier choices when buying food.

Public Health Solutions is honored to administer the Ryan White/DOHMH funding in the Tri-County region and to support TOUCH in the incredible work they do for the HIV community.

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