Hello from the Deep South! You get a big ole Southern “bless yore heart” for even opening a blog with HIV or AIDS in the title, so way to go my friend!
I’m a little giddy seeing that over 4,000 of you have taken a moment to read a few words from my blog about those of us in the fight down here in the deep-fried fields of Sweet Home Alabama!
Sorta been a busy few weeks for me, how bout you? For those of us in the HIV/AIDS field, this time of year is a little crazy, (like the rest of the year isn’t, HAH!). Organizations funded by grant funding, especially federal funds, have massive reporting and documentation requirements that make me feel like I might explode if another report due date pings on my Iphone reminders! Now don’t get me wrong, I love my IPhone, it just seems to nag me much more often here lately!
I find myself longing for the days of my first job as a 1969 teenage bride (good grief, what were we thinking!!??) where I worked at a Pasquale’s Pizza and slogged though day after day churning out pizzas and roast beef sandwiches (dang, those things were good), and chopped cabbage for cole slaw by the buckets! My boss once told me “to stand on one leg every chance I got” and I guess I looked at him with a goofy question mark on my face because he then said “stand on one leg, cause you sure as heck aren’t gonna be able to sit down tonight”! Mindless work, but I didn’t feel the weight or the pressure that comes with trying to provide life-saving services in a rural community in a backwards thinking state (dare I say nation?) that often doesn’t give a shizz about whether people with HIV live or die. Yup, I’ll take some cheese with that whine.
Okay, let me clarify; I love my work, and my life for that matter…as a Prevention program director I know there are many loving, caring and compassionate people in our community who do work to make life better for our neighborhood, those living with HIV or not. The not for profit community in our town and around the state carry a heavy burden attempting to fill the gaps that widen daily in Grand Canyon proportions with regard to healthcare, housing, drug/alcohol treatment, domestic violence, mental health, child abuse, etc. - not to mention just plain ole daily “food, clothing & shelter” type needs. Some faith based groups join in this endeavor and often provide a safe place for those in need. However, it’s just not enough. Poverty, and the desperation that comes as part of that package, drives some to risky behaviors that lead to disease, addiction, homelessness and heartache. It’s nothing new, it has been part of the fabric of life for generations; it just seems that we are doing less and less as a society to address it. Should we do more? Would we do more? Could we do more?
Sorry folks, you can’t ignore the poor, the elderly, the vulnerable and young, the sick and diseased. Oh you can try, you can walk hurriedly past the bell ringer and the kettles at Christmas time, you can always say “No”, when the cashier at the Big Box store asks you to donate your change to a worthy cause, you can drive past the children holding buckets at an intersection in any small country town as they seek funds to attend a youth camp or buy a computer for their club, and you can also feel all holy, high and mighty when you hear that a co-worker, distant cousin, or neighbor has contracted HIV, or Hepatitis C because of their drug use or sexual behavior. You can ignore that your elected officials are too concerned with fighting among themselves or grabbing all the perks they can get while in office to seriously debate and budget for social services so badly needed in our state and around the nation. Pardon me, but where in the hell does it all end? The needy folks among us aren’t going anywhere, their needs grow larger each day, how do we justify the lack of attention to our fellow man? Hey, I’m not asking anyone to personally solve the problems, just wishing more of us would be part of the work toward seeking the solutions.
The reason for all this angst on my part is that on December 1 st our agency and all those in the HIV/AIDS community will mark World AIDS Day. I’m actually excited about the community event Health Services Center has planned for the Calhoun County Alabama area on Tuesday, Nov. 29 th at the Anniston City Meeting Center, free and open to the public. At 5:30 we will gather there for our Karen Morris Memorial AIDS Walk down Noble Street, and then we’ll return to the Meeting Center at 6:00 for our annual community reception, candle lighting, and remembrance. We have a great event planned this year, with refreshments, entertainment by Birmingham’s “Mother May I”, door prizes and fellowship.
It’s a time to remember, celebrate life, and to truly ponder where we stand in the fight against HIV and AIDS in our community. So many lives lost, so much sadness, and yet there is optimism and hope that we will continue to slow the number of new infections, reduce the number of AIDS related deaths, and dare we say; find a cure for this disease that has ripped a path of destruction around the world for well over 30 years now. The evening is family friendly, please join us. It may be cold on Tuesday evening, but dress warm and walk with us in solidarity, as a community united, to address this issue in our hometown, or at least stop by for a cup of coffee and a moment of reflection. Your presence would mean so much to us.
Karen Morris, the namesake for our annual Memorial AIDS Walk was a peer educator at our clinic here in Hobson City, Alabama. She was a white, middle aged female, who contracted HIV through unprotected sex with an old boyfriend she trusted. She was not from the South, but ended up here, ironically to care for her elderly parents. Once diagnosed as HIV positive she never looked back. Unapologetic, blunt, plain-spoken and passionate, she accompanied me and others as we provided HIV prevention education to the newly diagnosed, the community, schools, churches etc. She was a hoot! She would make the 200 mile round-trip ride with me to Montgomery Alabama each quarter to sit on the State’s HIV Prevention Council in partnership with the Alabama Dept. of Public Health. All the way down we would thoughtfully discuss what might be on the agenda and she would plan her remarks and what she “wanted to happen”. Often I would have a sore throat by the time we got there from talking so much! On the way home, she would rant and rave about the slow process, inaction, wasted time and energy, and how we could possibly light a fire under the ass of the “system”. Makes me smile just to remember her. She passed away several years ago from other health conditions unrelated to her HIV, and I miss her every day, no other advocate has stepped up to fill her shoes with such fire and passion. She would want us to keep doing this work no matter what; before her death she asked me to buy her a shirt she’d seen at a past conference. I’m so glad I brought it back for her…it read “Annoy them – Survive!”
If you are reading this and there is a World AIDS Day event in your town, please support it. The actual day set aside to observe World AIDS Day around the world is Dec. 1 st . Our local event is on Nov. 29 th this year because those of us who provide HIV testing and prevention services in this area have so many requests to provide testing, public speakers, health fairs etc. on Dec. 1 st , this caused us to reserve that day to help others with their events and plan our own community event for Nov. 29 th .
Since we are the only HIV specific medical clinic and AIDS Service Organization in a 9,000 square mile area of rural Alabama we get requests from schools, churches, businesses etc. to provide HIV related programs, including HIV testing and counseling etc. so we are sometimes stretched pretty thin, but we are always excited to get an invitation! There is still so much fear and stigma around HIV in the rural South (and around the world, for that matter), we are honored to respond when any group, club, school, etc. decides to educate and provide factual and practical information on HIV. If you are in N.E. Alabama and would like to speak with us about prevention education or testing, please call 866-832-0100 or check out our website www.hscal.org for more information, or contact the AIDS Service Organization (ASO) in your city.
Just a funny story about being invited to do AIDS education in the community. Years ago, early in the epidemic, a local church daycare asked me to educate their staff because a child had tested positive for “AIDS”, in their words. Glad to help out, I planned an evening of training and education for the volunteer daycare staff. After about an hour, one of the ladies approached me to say thank you for the information, she said we were so upset when we received the word from one of our “moms” that her child had been diagnosed with ADD…yup, you are reading that right. ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder; not A-I-D-S, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome!! They had all been so upset over a child’s ADD, thinking they had an HIV positive child in their daycare! You can’t help but giggle; at least the staff got a top notch HIV education training session!
As another year in the HIV prevention world winds down, I hope that you are safe and warm, well-fed and secure; but I beg you to remember that there are many in our community who are not. There are persons on your street who may be hungry, there are children in school with your child who are sexually active, or experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and don’t have the information they need to be safe from disease and unwanted pregnancy, there are senior citizens who are dating again after being widowed or divorced and they are not prepared for the risks of sexually transmitted diseases that are out there today because these diseases didn’t even exist when they were teenagers, and there are persons living with HIV in our community, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, young adults to seniors…just like you and me. When you make your annual charitable contributions at the end of the year, please remember that the small not-for profit organizations in your town are struggling with cuts in funding, many are cutting services, laying off valuable staff and ending life-saving programs due to loss of grant funds. Hey, I’ve told you before, I’m a trailer park kid, my hubby came from rural poverty, and we, like so many of you, live paycheck to paycheck; but I will not end my year saying “shoulda, woulda, coulda”. I will give of my time, my money, and my heart!
Don’t forget to join us for local World AIDS Day on Nov. 29 th !
Here are some World AIDS Day resources and links for you.
Pictorial Timeline of the epidemic
A Legacy of Care, Ryan White Care Act
The President’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy
An AIDS Timeline
Alabama HIV Statistics