CHARLOTTE, N.C. — RAIN has announced that its CEO and president, Debbie Warren, will be retiring in January 2021 from the HIV service organization she founded 28 years ago.
RAIN was born in 1992 out of necessity due to the overwhelming HIV/AIDS epidemic. “Many of us in the LGBTQ community were caring for our friends and working to serve the community at the same time. So many people with HIV feared that they might die alone, and I was so deeply moved by that,” Warren shared.
Warren started the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN, which became the organization’s official name in 2014) to connect people in faith communities with those who were ill with AIDS and too weak to perform activities like getting groceries or picking up medication. “I knew that these two groups had to be brought together for healing. That’s when I started organizing AIDS Care Teams and matching them with Care Partners who were very sick with AIDS.”
Through her work, she has helped to ensure access to quality, personalized care in a nurturing environment for individuals and their families who are living with HIV and associated chronic conditions.
For those who know Warren, they have seen her constant cheerful and positive posture in the wake of experiencing incredible losses. Maintaining that came with a stark decision in the early days as to how she could best serve those around her. “Early on I realized that I needed help to process the losses, as well as the challenges of keeping the organization going. I found a good counselor, and I continue working with a counselor to this day. I need the support and perspective that she provides. Getting together with friends, time away, my faith community (Myers Park Baptist), and practices like yoga and guided meditation also help very much. I love seeing people out at various community events — that always brings me a lot of joy. We have a rich community that means a great deal to me.”
A fierce advocate, in 2010 Warren joined fellow experts on HIV/AIDS at the White House as part of a dialogue on the role of public-private partnerships in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. Under her guidance, RAIN became a national powerhouse of education and advocacy, promoting disease prevention, understanding and dignity for those affected by HIV, those who are at risk of infection and their families, the organization shared. Warren was a previous recipient of the Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World Award.
She has expressed that she has drawn inspiration from and has witnessed heroes spring forth from the community. “The people who served our community while they were dealing with their own HIV diagnosis/mortality inspired me. I often reference my friends Henry Finch and Jim Richards who died as a result of AIDS in the 1990s. They helped with early AIDS work here in Charlotte. There were several RAIN clients who accompanied me to various faith and community events to tell their stories — even on nights when they did not feel well. I often feel that I’m carrying their legacy forward with the work we are doing today.”
But this did not come without challenges.
“In the early days of RAIN’s formation, I knew absolutely nothing about nonprofits, grants, fundraising, managing a board or technology. The image of a sharpened pencil and legal pad come to mind. I was constantly working at my growing edges — learning to do something while doing it. It was stressful. Fortunately, I worked with some terrific board members and colleagues who gave me a lot of grace and advice,” she remarked. She added, “The Great Recession was very difficult. We were not able to maintain staffing levels, and fundraising was very challenging.” And, in more current times, she shared, “The pandemic brought challenges I had never experienced. We had to quickly figure out how to care for our clients and staff and keep everyone safe. It’s been hard to see so many of our clients lose jobs or have their work hours reduced this year. A lot of our work has been focused on keeping people fed and housed. And again, there’s the uncertainty of fundraising with virtual events.”
But that did not tamper down her energy and drive. “I’ve always believed in shared leadership, and RAIN is fortunate to have a great staff. We worked together to come up with a plan for sheltering in place and other challenges all along the way this year. Really, since the beginning, it’s the commitment, goodness and fortitude of the people working alongside me that sustain me during any challenging time. We have several long-tenured staff members at RAIN and a rich resource of community supporters who are always ready to pitch in and do what they can. It’s their generous spirit that sustains me.”
Warren’s accomplishments have been many over her career and when asked what she felt was the largest, most significant one, she shared, “I’m very proud of the fact we’ve always remained sensitive to the daily struggles of our clients — individuals who have honored RAIN with their trust. I’m also very proud that RAIN has grown in its capacity to meet the shifting needs of HIV. The initial model grew awareness and compassionate care to all corners of the community.”
As the HIV epidemic changed over the past two decades, so did RAIN, under Warren’s direction. RAIN’s services grew to include medical case management, bilingual education and case management, prevention programs, youth and adult support groups, mental health services, advocacy and education.
The organization expanded its staff size and client numbers have grown, as well as its capacity to meet the shifting needs of those with HIV, Warren said.
RAIN has positioned itself to care for those who need medical care and test individuals out in the community. The organization also helps individuals find treatment if needed, partners to prevent HIV with PrEP, cares for mental health, assists with insurance enrollment, supports youth and young adults and contributes to critical research.
As far as the complexion of the work that Warren and RAIN have done over the years, she shared, “In the early years of our work, we knew that our clients would not be able to live more than a year or two. We offered companionship and practical support to ease the isolation and anxiety. Today our role at RAIN is to help people overcome barriers that would keep them from obtaining optimal health. It’s clear that it takes more than medications to end the HIV epidemic. We are there with support when events disrupt treatment — loss of employment, housing or other crisis. RAIN has a critical role in helping people process the painful emotions that can accompany an HIV diagnosis. We have grown in our capacity to offer holistic care for all of these issues — I’m very proud of that.”
Twenty-eight years of service have added to the landscape Gay Bingo and the annual AIDS Walk, as well as World AIDS Day events. But when she started RAIN, her expectations were more targeted. “Honestly, I was very focused on the immediacy of caring for people who were very sick and were afraid that they might die alone. We wanted to make sure we had a strong volunteer network to support the number of people needing care. We also wanted to dispel myths and misinformation, so we did a lot of education in faith communities and other settings. I never thought HIV would become such a public health challenge in the South. Everyone referenced case numbers in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early days. When researchers started documenting the impact of stigma, homophobia, racism and other types of disparities, the Southern epidemic made sense. Even so, it’s still hard to see,” she recounted.
“The timing is really good for both RAIN and for me,” Warren said of her departure.
Prior to making the decision to retire, she spent time working on how to best leave the organization she helped birth so that it would have a sustainable success.
“AIDS United recognized that the group of Baby Boomers who were founders and long-tenured executives of AIDS organizations would all be retiring at about the same time. They offered training through their Sector Transformation Program with Raffa Consulting in Washington, D.C. A thoughtful transition takes several years to complete. The timing is really good for both RAIN and for me. RAIN is well-positioned for a strong, vibrant future. I am excited about the commitment and enthusiasm of young staff and board members. They are amazing — brilliant and creative — and they use all kinds of creative processes to reach people. RAIN’s board and staff care deeply about serving our community and work with incredible medical and research partners. I feel confident that I can entrust this incredible organization with its current and future leaders, enough so that I can continue toward my life’s next explorations.
The partnership between client and community is what brings success. RAIN provides not only for its clients but for the entire community. When people are well enough to contribute their talents, wisdom and experience, especially from their hardships, we all learn and grow. Charlotte needs all of its people’s participation. I hope that individuals and corporations continue to see and support that value.”
For the foreseeable future upon her retirement, she simply wants to rest first before she tries her hand in other endeavors. “I look forward to having the luxury of time. Time in my garden; time to finish the clay sculptures I’ve started in my studio. Time to reflect, read, and plan. Travel that energizes me and reminds me of the power of nature. I love our national parks — I hope to visit more of those in the coming years.
A successor for Debbie has been identified and RAIN expects to make the name public before the end of the year.
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