Central Illinois Friends (Friends) opened its doors more than 30 years ago to serve the Peoria area during the AIDS epidemic. Their commitment to the LGBTQ+ community continues today in Peoria and has expanded to serve the surrounding 15 counties. Friends’ multilingual staff provides HIV testing, education and health care referral services to populations that speak English, Spanish, Japanese, Indonesian and French.
The most recent expansion of this commitment occurred with the August grand opening of a new Central Illinois Friends site located at the Community Health Care Clinic (CHCC) in Normal. The clinic provides adult health care, dental, and pharmacy services to individuals that are unable to pay for services. Services offered by Friends at this site are also free of charge and include HIV and STI testing, access to PrEP, HPV vaccinations, transgender health navigation services, and sexual health counseling.
Recognizing the value of partnerships to provide ongoing and innovative services, Friends collaborated with the CHCC to locate its sexual health clinic within the CHCC building, which is owned by Carle Health.
Bringing care to the central Illinois LGBTQ+ community
To bring LGBTQ+ care to the Bloomington/Normal area, including its diverse student population, Friends also coordinated with the Prairie Pride Coalition, Carle BroMenn Medical Center, Illinois State University, and Planned Parenthood on this project.
The collaboration with CHCC and other partners has proven to be particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Friends’ clients from the Bloomington/Normal area cannot travel as freely to the Friends’ clinic in Peoria for services. In addition, Friends lost state funding to travel with its mobile clinic to Bloomington/Normal, as these funds were shifted to the effort to mitigate COVID-19.
Friends’ executive director Deric Kimler said the new clinic site exemplifies the organization’s overall philosophy to meet people where they are and put people first, an innovation to ensure people living with HIV receive the care they need. “People who aren’t comfortable talking to their family doctor about sex can come to Friends,” Kimler said.
“During my five years with Friends, I learned money and health insurance are often barriers to people accessing care. I want to obliterate those roadblocks to provide people the testing, treatment, and care they need at no charge,” Kimler stated.
Friends helps clients make decisions for their own life and care
By providing sexual health counseling services, Friends can help individuals in emotionally, physically or sexually abusive relationships. For instance, instead of judging a client who sought advice about a sexually abusive partner, a Friends counselor showed her how to use a receptive condom (also called a female or internal condom) to prevent an unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. She accepted the advice, returned to Friends when she was ready to leave the relationship, and was referred to another organization with services to help and protect her during the transition.
“We empowered her to take control of her situation,” Kimler explained, “which gave her the confidence to take the next step.”
The goal for Friends is care for every person
The new site in Normal will meet the needs of a broader population by offering extended services. “Before this location opened, many had to travel to Chicago for a comprehensive LGBTQ+ exam. Now we have a clinic for anyone struggling with a physician who doesn’t have enough time to care for them or take the time to understand what is happening to their body,” Kimler stated.
For now, as always, anyone who comes to Friends will come in as a person, not a number, in a nonjudgmental zone. That’s meeting people where they are because Friends cares.