When Kathi Boyle took a job as interim executive director of the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force seven years ago, the agency was in need of some of the TLC it had been known to hand out.
Birds flew around the hallways of the fourth-floor office in the old Columbia West Hospital, in Wilkinsburg; mushrooms grew on the walls in the kitchen; and staffers carried wheelchair-bound clients up and down steps because the elevator didn't work.
In addition to the physical issues plaguing it, the agency also had the financial stress of debt. "We were treading water," says Bart Rauluk, president of the PATF board.
Boyle saw the needs ahead of her: The HIV/AIDS testing, support and resource agency would have to change locations, and its budget would have to be trimmed. As Boyle, 64, prepares to depart the agency in July for retirement, Rauluk says an agency out of debt and in a new facility on Penn Avenue is just part of her "incredible legacy."
"Not only do we have no debt, we have a little reserve," Rauluk says. "I absolutely couldn't say that seven years ago. Part of her strength has been to make us more efficient, effective and balanced."
She's also been praised for her collaboration among other HIV/AIDS agencies -- all run by women -- like Persad, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center HIV/AIDS Program and Allegheny General Hospital's Positive Health Clinic. The four agency heads meet quarterly to discuss projects, community needs and how to best direct the public's attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
"She's really worked at determining what the best role is for PATF in collaborating with other agencies, and everyone tries to work together," says Michelle Akers, administrative director of the UPMC program. "She's done a great job of adapting to the changing needs of the HIV community and seeing what PATF can do to support them."
PATF serves more than 500 clients on a regular basis and does more than 1,500 tests a year -- up from 1,100 when Boyle started.
"I'm glad people are coming to us who are HIV-positive," says Boyle. "I am not happy that there are new HIV positives all of the time."
Though it's lower than when the disease became prevalent, in the 1980s, Boyle says, she's still concerned about the rate of infection. One in five men who have sex with men are infected with the virus, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. And according to statistics from the Allegheny County Department of Health, 37 people were diagnosed with AIDS and 89 tested positive for HIV in Allegheny County in 2010.
The biggest challenge facing the PATF -- and the HIV/AIDs community -- is public perception, something advocates have long fought to change. "People tend to forget it's a public-health issue," Boyle says. "It's not a moral issue. It's not a social issue."
As for the Pittsburgh AIDs Task Force, chair Rauluk says the agency has narrowed a field of 30 executive-director candidates to four, and plans to make a new hire by the end of June.
But he acknowledges that whoever takes the post will have big shoes to fill.
Boyle "has changed the attitude and the perception in the community of this organization," Rauluk says. "She brought another level of advocacy to this community that was missing in the past."
Boyle, for her part, says she'll stay in Pittsburgh and plans to take advantage of her retirement to see her grandchildren. "I've been doing this too many years," she jokes. "I'm worn out."