Chattanooga CARES seeks to put new face on AIDS

Chattanooga CARES seeks to put new face on AIDS

September 30th, 2012 by Joan Garrett McClane in Local Regional News

Matt McAdoo


Matt McAdoo

Age: 31

Position: Executive director of Chattanooga CARES

Education: Majored in political science and biology at the University of Tennessee, has a master's of business administration from UTC and a law degree from the University of Memphis.

Professional: Interned with former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, interned in the legal department of Wal-Mart, adjunct professor at Tennessee Temple University, in-house counsel for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

Personal life: McAdoo is married and has one step-son. McAdoo attends Silverdale Baptist Church

Pastime: Duck hunting


Chattanooga CARES has 200 volunteers and 22 full-time staff members. The nonprofit agency, which is funded in part by Ryan White federal funding for low-income people with HIV and AIDS, provides medical care, medication, housing assistance, testing, outreach and educational classes.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic still disproportionately affects gay men, but the area's largest HIV/AIDS prevention agency wants to distance itself from homosexuality.

Matt McAdoo, the newly hired director of Chattanooga CARES, said the group has let people from outside define who they are.

"In the public persona we are an organization that treats gay men with AIDS," he said.

Slowly, McAdoo plans to rebrand CARES as an agency that treats the virus but doesn't endorse sexual preferences.

Self described as "straight, right and white," McAdoo said he wants the CARES mission to be something that the religious hold-outs on gay rights can support.

"[The virus] doesn't discriminate by sexual orientation," McAdoo said. "It is a human disease."

Jim Samples, one of the original founders of Chattanooga CARES in the 1980s and a current board member, said he thinks the board and McAdoo are moving the nonprofit in the right direction, toward viability.

Local AIDS prevention efforts have been hurt by their close link with homosexual men.

"I had a hell of a time getting any funding," Samples said.

The agency still struggles to compete for local dollars, even as federal and state grants are drying up. Since 2003, grant funding has decreased by 10 percent every year. Local funding is down 15 percent in the same period, said Jerry Evans, prevention program manager at CARES.

The total budget in 2012 was $1.5 million.

In fact, before McAdoo, the agency hadn't had an full-time executive director since 2006. The agency had a part-time executive director from 2006 until 2012.

The position was eliminated because of budget cuts.

CARES has always been strongly linked to groups that advocate for homosexual rights. The group typically has set up booths at gay-friendly events and has distributed pamphlets and condoms at gay bars locally.

That's not going to change. The agency needs to be where the at-risk people are, McAdoo said.

However, McAdoo said, "I don't want us to be synonymous of endorsement with anything. Prevention, education and treatment, that is how I want us to shape our message."

"By changing our message we are completely congruent with the message of the majority of religious organizations in the South," he said.

Fifty percent of new AIDS infections in Chattanooga last year were in men who have sex with men, according to figures from the Tennessee Department of Health released Friday. And that number could be higher. Thirty-nine percent of cases this year were flagged as unknown/other.

Only 11 percent of cases were caused by heterosexual contact, according to health department data.

Part of the CARES rebrand will involve linking the group more closely with the medical community. CARES plans to move from its Kent Street location in North Chattanooga to the medical towers near Erlanger. The location will be on four bus lines and give direct access to the health department and medical providers that work with CARES, McAdoo said.

McAdoo is young, and Samples doesn't mind him being straight. He might be able to win over people who wouldn't have thought twice about people with HIV before.

"He cares about the well-being of the people coming here," said Samples. "That is what it takes."

And McAdoo said his personal beliefs about homosexuality won't interfere with his ability to carry out the CARES mission.

He said he can't imagine what it would be like to be attracted to another man or to have an intimate relationship with another man.

But he said it's not his place to judge.

"What I do know is that I don't have any reservation about befriending or loving any person who has a lifestyle choice different than mine."