Leading the way

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Chasity Cadaoas is the executive director of the Maui AIDS Foundation, the county’s only comprehensive HIV/AIDS service organization.

Over the past three decades, great strides have been made in the fight against human immunodeficiency virus and the disease it causes, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

But the battle isn’t over.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV/AIDS — and 1 in 7 of them don’t know they are infected. In 2017, nearly 40,000 people received an HIV diagnosis in the United States. Globally, approximately 36.9 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2017. Since the pandemic began in the early 1980s, more than 70 million people worldwide have been infected with the HIV virus and 35 million have died from AIDS-related illnesses.

And as of today, there is no cure or vaccine for HIV.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but our work is not done,” said Chasity Cadaoas, executive director of the Maui AIDS Foundation, the county’s only comprehensive HIV/AIDS service organization.

Since its inception in 1987, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit has provided a range of services to thousands of residents, including federally funded-case management for people living with HIV/AIDS, linkage to medical care, access to medications, housing assistance and emotional and educational support. The foundation initially began as a grassroots effort to address and respond to the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS, but eventually expanded its mission to promote the sexual health and well-being for all community members.

Today, the organization continues to provide free and confidential testing for HIV and hepatitis C, as well as syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea (the importance of which cannot be overstated: Hawaii has seen a recent spike in syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea cases). It also supplies safe sex kits; helps clients navigate community resources; connects HIV-negative individuals to pre-exposure prophylaxis (also known as PrEP); educates the public about sexually transmitted infections; facilitates a number of self-empowerment groups; and works tirelessly to dispel misconceptions and combat the stigma of HIV/AIDS.

Cadaoas’ connection to the foundation is a deeply personal one. In 1990, her mother was diagnosed with AIDS. Unbeknownst to her, she had contracted HIV several years earlier at a tattoo shop and unknowingly transmitted the virus to Cadaoas’ two young brothers perinatally. Tragically, Cadaoas’ mother and 3-year-old brother died from the disease in 1993. But her other brother survived — after nearly six months of AZT (an antiretroviral medication) treatments, he tested negative for HIV.

“He became my vision of hope,” she said.

Cadaoas says she will be forever indebted to the AIDS service organizations that supported her family during that unimaginably difficult time — and the experience is what prompted her to join the foundation’s volunteer and donor roster in 2005. The following year, she stepped into the roles of HIV prevention outreach tester and coordinator of the CDC-approved SISTAH (Sisters Informing Sisters on Topics of AIDS in Hawaii) Project, an empowerment group for women. In 2015, she became the foundation’s director of lab and prevention services, while simultaneously overseeing the SISTAH Project (and later, its male counterpart, the BRADDA Project). And last month, Cadaoas took the helm of the organization as its executive director; she is the first woman to serve in the position.

“It’s an honor to work with so many dedicated people who do so much to help our community,” she said.

Cadaoas says she and her fellow staff members won’t rest until the day HIV/AIDS and STIs no longer hurt Hawaii’s families. “Every day, we strive to make life better for everyone,” she said. “We are the community that we serve.”

To learn more about the Maui AIDS Foundation, to make a testing appointment or to inquire about donor or volunteer opportunities, visit www.mauiaids.org or call 242-4900. And save the date: the foundation will host a “Game of Thrones”-inspired “Winter is Coming” cosplay fundraiser in place of its annual Halloween party on Sept. 21, beginning at 7 p.m. at Sunsets Bar & Grill (formerly Kono’s on the Green) in Kihei. For more information, email events@mauiaids.org or call 242-4900.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.