Jerry Binns: How support groups answered a call for help

October 14, 2008 

Hilton Head resident Jerry Binns stands in the Hilton Head Island surf at the place he mourned the death of Peter Christiansen, a volunteer with the Beaufort Access Network, who died of AIDS in the early 1990s. Binns founded the network more than 20 years ago.

C. ALUKA BERRY/CABERRY@THESTATE.COM — The State

In late 1986, Jerry Binns, then director of the Mental Health Association of Beaufort and Jasper Counties, took a call from a young gay man seeking an HIV/AIDS support group on Hilton Head Island.

A few weeks later, a woman whose son had moved home from Atlanta called Binns in search of a doctor who would treat people with AIDS.

Binns was tired of telling people he couldn’t help them with problems related to HIV/AIDS. “I said: ‘OK. Something needs to happen here.’”

In 1987, Binns pulled together a small group — Lowcountry AIDS Task Force — to help those with HIV/AIDS and teach the public about the disease.

Around South Carolina, groups were forming similarly to respond to the needs of people with HIV and AIDS. People volunteered to sit with the dying, read to them when they couldn’t see anymore, bring them food, take them to doctors’ appointments and hold their hands as they died.

Today, those groups have evolved into the state’s formal system of community-based care. Their mission now is far different — to help people with HIV and AIDS live longer, healthier lives.

The group’s first office was in the trunk of Binns’ car. Now called the ACCESS Network, the organization serves 250 people for people in Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton and Colleton counties with a wide range of social services.

Early on, the group found itself acting as a sort of hospice. Many clients in the last stages of AIDS had moved back to S.C. to die. Others had been put out by their relatives.

Binns remembers one nine-month period in the early 1990s when 42 clients died. Since 1987, 276 clients have died. “That’s a lot for a small organization, a small community,” he said.

Binns fondly remembers many patients whose hands he has held, whose last wishes he has helped to fulfill.

Binns thinks of Peter, a client, every Father’s Day. Of Scandinavian ancestry, Peter wanted to be placed in a boat and pushed out to sea when he died — like a Viking on a burning pyre. “We said: ‘Good idea. That’s interesting,’” but improbable.

The day Peter died, Binns walked to the beach to say goodbye as best he could.

Suddenly, a storm whipped up.

“Thor was doing his thing — bolts of lightning and thunder and all that stuff,” Binns remembered with a laugh. And “I said, ‘Peter, it looks like you just got your wish.’”

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