The Lifelong AIDS Alliance began in 2001 when two Seattle organizations fighting AIDS — the Chicken Soup Brigade and the Northwest AIDS Foundation — merged into one. As the number of AIDS-related deaths declined in subsequent years, the consolidated agency expanded its reach. By 2022, it was working "to remove barriers to health for all people, so that no one faces illness and injustice alone. Our comprehensive services include food and nutrition, healthcare navigation, aging and disability support, and connection to housing and other vital resources" ("About Us"). Now known simply as Lifelong, the agency works with a yearly operating budget of more than $20 million and has dozens of fulltime employees at its headquarters on Capitol Hill.
The Looming Menace
The first inklings of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. arrived in September 1979 when a 37-year-old schoolteacher in New York City, suffering from enlarged lymph nodes and a rash resistant to treatment, was diagnosed with an obscure skin cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. Within two weeks another man in New York had come forward with similar symptoms. Doctors made note that the two men were friends with mutual acquaintances, and that both men were gay. Fifteen months later the first patient, Rick Wellikoff, was dead -- the fourth person in the U.S. to die of what would later be called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
Across the country in California, men also were falling ill with mysterious symptoms. In November 1980 a doctor at the University of California-Los Angeles examined a patient with a severe yeast infection in his throat. The diagnosis was pneumonia. Blood tests revealed something more alarming: A complete absence in his blood of T-helper cells, "the cells that activate the specific disease-fighting cells and give chemical instructions for creating the antibodies that destroy microbial invaders" (Shilts, 43). In essence, the man’s immune system had been decimated. Doctors and researchers were baffled.
By the end of 1980, unbeknownst to the medical community, let alone the general public, the AIDS crisis had been set into terrible motion. As former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts wrote in his book And the Band Played On, "A new virus was now well-entrenched on three continents, having moved easily from Africa to Europe and then to North America. Later surveys would show that in the United States fifty-five young men had been diagnosed with some infection linked to this new virus by the end of 1980. Ten others had been diagnosed in Europe, while many more were ailing among the uncounted sick of primitive Africa. Slowly and almost imperceptibly, the killer was awakening" (Shilts, 49).
It would be another 19 months before the first case of AIDS in Seattle was reported, and more than two years until the first death in Washington state.
Chicken Soup Brigade
Tim Burak was born in Seattle in 1945 and earned an M.A. in English from the University of Washington in 1970. After beginning a teaching career in Arkansas, he returned to Seattle in 1972 "in order to live more openly as a gay man" ("LGBTQ Activism in Seattle ..."). Giving up teaching, he landed at the Seattle-King County Health Department, where he coordinated medical and dental services for low-income families. In 1981 he volunteered at the Seattle Gay Clinic, where "he first palpated a patient’s neck and found lymph nodes so swollen they felt like mumps. After that, Burak saw men with similar swelling — an early sign of HIV infection — every time he worked ... As the AIDS epidemic began to grow, the clinic quickly became a hub for sharing information and brainstorming ways to help. "'None of us knew if we had this thing — or even what this thing was,' Burack said. 'We were operating in a climate of fear'" ("How Seattle Fought ...").
By the end of 1981, there had been 270 cases in the U.S. of people exhibiting severe immune deficiency and 121 of them had died. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta were receiving reports of five to six new cases a week. Gay men were visiting healthcare providers with complaints of swollen lymph glands, mild fevers, sore throats, fungal infections in the mouth, coughs, and weight loss. By late 1982, with this new and little-understood illness striking Seattle’s gay community, it became apparent that many men were suffering at home and alone. That December, Burak called a clinic in New York to ask about its "buddy network" for helping patients who were struggling to help themselves. Modeling what was being done in New York, Burak formed a loose-knit organization of helpers and gave it a catchy name. According to a 2021 story in Seattle Gay News, "The name, Chicken Soup Brigade, was conceived after a friend of Burak’s, who needed help with taking their medication and transportation, had asked, 'You think you could cook me up a little chicken soup today?'" ("Lifelong's Chicken Soup Brigade ...").
Thus, in April 1983, was born the Chicken Soup Brigade (CSB). Its original intent was "to help people living with any disabling illness to get to doctor's appointments, to provide companionship, and to deliver groceries to them. By 1984, the focus shifted to serving people with AIDS" ("Lifelong's Chicken Soup Brigade ..."). In the Chicken Soup Brigade’s infancy, Burak and Josh Joshua handled referrals from physicians, clinics, and patients, and Tom Speer and Will Jones filled out the roster of volunteers. They transported patients to stores and medical appointments, helped them with letter writing, brought meals, cleaned apartments, helped care for pets, and raised funds to send the sick home for Christmas, or to provide parents the means to visit their children in Seattle.
Two months after the Chicken Soup Brigade was organized, more than 300 people packed a Seattle City Council meeting to talk about the emerging crisis of AIDS. "It devastates you and isolates you," Joshua told the council. "It devastates them. What would having cancer do to you? What would being in a car accident at 80 miles an hour do to you?" ("300 Marchers …"). The same day in Washington, D.C., representatives of the gay community asked the Reagan administration for $100 million to fight AIDS, nearly six times the amount proposed by the federal government.
In December 1986 the Chicken Soup Brigade took out a newspaper classified ad looking for a fulltime recruiter and coordinator, someone with at least two years of college and two years of work experience. Salary: $15,000 to $19,000. A few months later, CSB hired Carol Sterling, its first paid staff member. Wrote The Seattle Times: "When Carol Sterling, a self-described loudmouth lesbian, took over Seattle’s Chicken Soup Brigade, it had 12 clients, a handful of volunteers, and almost no money. When she left in 1995, the group had its own commercial kitchen; fielded hundreds of volunteers; and raised $2 million a year through grants, Gay Bingo and dance parties featuring celebrities like Etta James" ("How Seattle Fought ..."). After just a few months on the job, Sterling had increased CSB’s volunteer pool to 80 and its budget to $35,000. By the end of 1983, the roster of volunteers had nearly tripled and was transformed to include nearly 50 percent women.
Despite this rapid growth, the Chicken Soup Brigade had to hustle to keep pace with ever-increasing demand. The first AIDS case in Seattle was reported in July 1982. Nine months later a man from Tacoma died, the first AIDS-related death in the region. By 1985, there were 74 confirmed deaths in King County. In 1986, another 94 people in King County died. In 1988, 156 perished. By the end of the 1980s the disease had claimed 727 lives in King County, most of them young gay men, and thousands more were living with HIV. Eventually, AIDS would claim more than 8,000 lives in Washington and more than 40 million worldwide.
By 1991, the Chicken Soup Brigade had about 400 volunteers, most of them working four hours a week. The organization opened a thrift store on Capitol Hill, and in 1994 it hired a dietician. In 1996, it expanded its services to include anyone who was HIV-positive. Its client base expanded to more than 900 by 1997.
Northwest AIDS Foundation
The Northwest AIDS Foundation (NWAF) began in Seattle in 1983 "with a focus to raise funds for educational campaigns and to offer direct assistance to people as they moved through illness to death" (Royale). According to a 1983 report by the foundation, it was formed by "a group of Seattle-area health and business professionals and lay people to provide for a coordinating body whereby financial, informal and professional resources of local citizens can be directed to the public health threat posed by AIDS" ("Can We Talk AIDS?"). With Dr. Thomas Marsella as its first president, NWAF set about raising money for public education programs, support services for persons with AIDS, and "the promotion of responsible media coverage of AIDS issues" ("Can We Talk AIDS?").
Also instrumental in the foundation’s early days was Dr. Robert Wood, a New York-born internist who moved to Seattle in 1975 to finish his medical training and found a permanent home. He joined the University of Washington’s faculty of medicine in 1977 and served as the second president of the Northwest AIDS Foundation. Wood knew firsthand the implications of HIV and AIDS. He began providing care for people living with AIDS in 1982, and in 1985 Wood himself was diagnosed as HIV-positive. Three months later he developed shingles, a sometimes precursor to full-blown AIDS. "Though his immune system rebounded, the episode heightened his concern that his years could be numbered. When an offer to become King County's first AIDS control officer came in late fall, he had little hesitation. "'I thought,' he said, 'that this might be a good way to make a contribution to my community'" ("Poz Stories ...).
In 1985 the Northwest AIDS Foundation received a grant from the U.S. Conference of Mayors to launch a "safe sex" educational program and advertising campaign to include radio spots, brochures, bus signs, a theme song, and buttons stressing safe sexual practices. By then AIDS had been diagnosed in 108 people in King County, almost all of them gay or intravenous drug users. "The campaign will not advertise a homosexual lifestyle," Wood said. "It will advocate a healthy lifestyle … Each new sexual encounter offers the same risk. Our object is to change behavior in the high-risk groups" ("AIDS Fight to Get Funds ...").
NWAF hired its fulltime executive director in 1986, and a year later it hired its first case manager and sponsored its first AIDS Walkathon fundraiser, which attracted more than 2,000 participants and raised about $335,000. The event began in Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center, where the speakers included King County Executive Tim Hill, Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, and U.S. Representative Mike Lowry. "Lowry, who also received a standing ovation from the crowd for his efforts to obtain federal money for AIDS care and education, criticized the Reagan administration for viewing AIDS as a moral issue. 'It's not a moral issue, but the most important health issue in the history of the world,' Lowry said. 'Today we're going to vote with our feet to get the money the federal government should be providing. And we'll keep voting until we get the money'" ("AIDS Walkathon Raises ..."). Among those who completed the 6.6-mile course was AIDS patient Michael Otto; Swedish Hospital released him earlier in the day so he could participate and help raise funds. Otto walked part of the route and rode the rest in a van. He died two months later at age 33.
When HIV infections spiked in 1990, NWAF debuted a "Keep It Up, Seattle!" media campaign, one of the first projects in the nation to address relapses in unsafe behaviors among gay and bisexual men. Two new programs — training to teach businesses how to humanely address HIV in the workplace and skills-building workshops for at-risk women — were launched in 1991, when the annual AIDS Walk raised a record $1.5 million. In 1992 the foundation expanded its outreach program, placing workers in bathhouses, public parks, bars, clubs, and other late-night venues.
Lifelong AIDS Alliance
In June 2000, the Chicken Soup Brigade and the Northwest AIDS Foundation announced their intention to merge the following year. On February 8, 2001, a new name — the Lifelong AIDS Alliance — was unveiled. "The new agency will continue the mission of its parent agencies and provide services for people with AIDS," reported the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "Chuck Kuehn, former executive director at Chicken Soup Brigade, will be executive director of the new agency. Judith Billings, former president of the board of directors for Northwest AIDS Foundation, will head the board at Lifelong AIDS Alliance. Billings is the former state superintendent of public instruction" ("AIDS Agency Born").
Yet despite its experienced leadership, the agency confronted organizational challenges almost immediately. In September 2001 it eliminated 14 staff positions and slashed its budget by more than $600,000. "The non-profit agency … expects to report a $1.5 million deficit in its next audit report … The alliance has seen both individual giving and special-events attendance drop significantly in the last year, but expects to remain in operation" ("Donation Drop Felt").
In 2004, Tina Podlodowski, a former Microsoft executive and Seattle City Council member, replaced Kuehn as executive director. "Contributions to the agency have decreased in recent years as many believe the AIDS crisis has passed," reported The Seattle Times. "But the organization still serves about 2,500 clients, while donations from the annual AIDS Walk have decreased from more than $1 million in the early 1990s to $350,000 last year, Kuehn said. Other money comes from federal and state governments, but Kuehn said the agency now is able to help only clients with the most serious problems" ("Former City Councilwoman to Lead ...").
Lifelong lost a valued employee but gained an important political ally when Sally Clark was appointed to fill a vacant Seattle City Council seat in January 2006. Clark, former editor of Seattle Gay News, had been active in the LGBTQ community. She left journalism and joined the Chicken Soup Brigade in 1994, and in the early 2000s became Lifelong’s community-resources director. "I'm not sure what happens next," she said. "This is the part that makes me sad, I love working here at Lifelong AIDS Alliance. I get to do so many things related to doing good in people's lives every day. I think I will be able to continue doing that on the council, too" ("AIDS Alliance Activist Wins ...").
Clark served on the city council for a decade. Meanwhile, Lifelong found myriad ways to raise money under Podlodowski. In 2005 it received a $1.3 million bequest from a couple, Harvey Muggy and Donald Lothian, who had helped pioneer gay political activism in Seattle. Ric Weiland, an original Microsoft employee, gave generously before his death in 2006. Lifelong sponsored benefit dinners, banquets, concerts, films, soccer games, and theatrical performances. It opened a thrift shop on Capitol Hill. The annual AIDS Walk fundraiser brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. And it continued to hold the Gay Bingo nights popularized by Carol Sterling. "Held the second Saturday of the month, January through June, Gay Bingo has grown so popular that players must plan ahead and buy tickets nearly a month in advance. The event has been held all over the city in its 14-year history, but seems to have found a home at South Lake Union Park's old Naval Reserve building. All proceeds from the events benefit the Lifelong AIDS Alliance, which has its headquarters on Capitol Hill. No doubt resident host Glamazonia, a 7-foot-2-inch drag queen (in heels, of course), helps sell tickets" ("Everybody's 'Gay' at AIDS Alliance Event").
Dave Richart succeeded Podlodowski as executive director in 2007. By then the organization was working with a $12-million annual budget and had 110 fulltime employees, plus more than 1,000 volunteers. According to a 2008 report, "A central aspect to Lifelong's efforts is case management, in which someone either recently diagnosed with HIV or a person suffering from AIDS receives one-on-one counseling from a trained agent" ("AHF Seattle Healthcare Center Opens ..."). Lifelong had broadened its reach to include patients in Pierce and Snohomish counties, offering expanded services including health insurance, housing, education, and needle exchanges. The Chicken Soup Brigade was feeding about 900 people a week, most of them HIV positive.
Richart helped grow Lifelong’s budget to $22 million before leaving in 2011. In 2015 Lifelong moved from its offices on E Union Street to a new healthcare center at 1016 E Pine Street on Capitol Hill. At the time, approximately 7,500 people were living with HIV/AIDS in King County, and nearly 14,000 were diagnosed across the state. Lifelong addressed the needs of these people and many more as it moved forward under current  executive director Claire Neal. According to its website:
"Everyone deserves the chance to live their healthiest life, but that vision is out of reach for far too many people. For nearly 40 years, Lifelong has fought for marginalized communities with relentless compassion — because no one should have to battle stigma, judgment, or the devastating effects of illness alone. Our wraparound care model supports the whole person by breaking down barriers and improving access to nutritious food, stable housing, and vital health resources for people living with diabetes, HIV, kidney disease, and other life-challenging illnesses. Our community support network fills the gaps in broken systems and ensures that everyone has an equitable opportunity to thrive" ("About Us").