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AVOL officials' work is their cause

AVOL's supporters are professionals and volunteers, young and old, straight and gay, rich and poor. But they share one important thing in common: They are warriors. And they are determined not to lose the war.

Executive director Mark J. Royse came to AVOL in the early 1990s as a volunteer. That theme keeps repeating itself at AVOL. This is a place where people offer their help.

"I helped with the first AIDS walk," Royse says.

Now in his late 30s, he wears his role easily as chief executive. He proudly gives a tour of AVOL's new offices at 225 Walton Avenue. There are plenty of advantages to the new digs.

"This location is a little more central and accessible for the people we serve," he says. There also is space upstairs should the agency need to expand. Royse smiles as he settles in behind the enormous conference table, recently donated and quickly commandeered for his desk. His large windowed office is an improvement over the old location on North Limestone.

"This is a much more professional environment for us," he says proudly.

Royse is a man who laughs easily, but his voice turns deadly serious when he talks about young people at risk: "HIV/AIDS is 100 percent preventable. No one has to get AIDS."

AVOL is a place where people can come for information, counseling, even free testing or condoms. AVOL provides referrals for people who need medical or mental health services, and it helps people who need something, whether it's a ride to the clinic or a place to live.

AVOL's address isn't the only thing that's changed. So has their target audience.

"It used to be the three H's: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, Haitians," he said, but that demographic has changed over the years.

"Men who have sex with men, whether they think of themselves as gay or not," are still the highest risk group, Royse said. But so are intravenous-drug users. Because efforts have historically focused on gay white men, the African-American and Hispanic populations are underserved.

"We monitor the epidemiology," he says, and the rate of infection is growing in Kentucky.

In an economy that challenges everyone, Royse knocks on wood. Hard times increase people's needs, but people continue to support the agency. Brian Slate, resource coordinator, says, "I don't think I've ever been told no."

Like Royse, Slate started as a volunteer and eventually became president of the board. After a transition period, Slate became part of the team that hired Royse. The new executive director soon found a full-time place for Slate. It's not a glamorous job, but it has its rewards.

When other staff members identify a client's material need, Slate's job is to fill it.

"I help with finding resources for clients ... whether they need a roof over their heads, Thanksgiving food or Christmas holiday toys."

He also spearheads fund-raising events, such as Saturday's Red Ribbon Ball. Slate is a man with more energy than most. Why does he work so hard?

"AVOL is just very dear to my heart because of my friends and my past ..." he says, his voice trailing. He takes a moment to put his passion into words.

When you know people need your help, "You've just gotta be there," he said. "I have a wonderful job. I raise money to hold events that make people happy and raise money to keep people happy. I'm blessed more than people know."

Owensboro native Diane Lawless is the Lexington-Fayette County Third District council representative. She was a volunteer member of AVOL's board from 1990 to 1996 during the group's growth into a professional agency.

As a licensed clinical social worker, Lawless had seen clients struggling to live with HIV/AIDS and had lost several friends to the disease. During her tenure, AVOL opened Rainbow House and Solomon House, where people who needed a home and care could find help.

She credits Royse with continuing that growth and rejuvenating the professionals and volunteers at AVOL.

"Mark has raised the bar. I can't say enough good things about him," she says.

All three agree that there remains plenty of work to do.

"People should know that HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence," Lawless, says, "but that means more people living longer with the disease."

Slate agrees. "There are people with HIV dying of old age," an unimaginable scenario just a few years ago.

"Only one in four HIV-positive Kentuckians knows that they have the virus," Royse says. People who have been exposed are the highest risk group, and they are the people AVOL works hardest to reach. He wants everyone to know that even though "talking about this disease is unpleasant and frightening," there are steps that everyone can take to protect themselves and the people they love.

The most important step, he repeats like a mantra: "Get tested."