The Health Education Resource Organization (HERO) was founded in 1983 by Dr. Bernie Branson at the former Medical Arts Building on Read Street. Over the next two decades, HERO grew to become Baltimore's oldest and largest HIV and AIDS service provider and the first grassroots community based organization in Baltimore to help people with HIV and AIDS.
Dr. Branson was one of a number of physicians with offices at the 1927 building. What set Branson apart was that he was gay physician who cared for a large number of gay men as patients. Between 1978 and 1982, Bran served as the medical director for veneral disease clinic for gay men that later became the Chase-Brexton medical clinic. After a new and horrible disease began to strike some of his patients, Branson started hosting a small support group in the waiting room of his eighth-floor office.
Two years earlier, in 1981, the Centers for Disease Control had labeled this disease “GRID”—gay-related immune deficiency. With little known about the condition, the name contributed to the stigmatization of gay men with the condition and many health care providers refused to provide care to HIV-infected patients. By the end of 1981, there were 234 known cases across country. By 1987, there were over forty thousand people infected with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) living in the U.S.
From its humble beginnings with a support group, a hotline, and a small grant from the Goldseker Foundation, HERO soon became a major provider of AIDS education and patient services in the state. In 1984, HERO held the first conference on AIDS in the black community at the Baltimore Convention Center. The group's AIDS walks attracted 10,000 people at the height of their popularity, and the World Health Organization turned to HERO as a consultant as it worked to set up similar programs around the globe. The organization offered a variety of services: a buddy system that relied on support from hundreds of volunteers; a drop-in resource center; clinical, legal, educational, and counseling services; and even a place to do laundry and collect mail.
Branson left Baltimore in 1990 for a career at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. HERO had become an organization with a national and international reputation for exemplary care. Unfortunately, the organization closed in 2008 amid allegations of fiscal mismanagement, which impeded its ability to do effective fundraising. In 2009, the Medical Arts Building where HERO started was converted to apartments by builders Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse and architect Kann Partners. Despite the organization's sad demise, HERO should be remembered for the many valuable services that it offered to so many people.