Addressing HIV Stigma – Chris White, Support Services Coordinator

We live in a world in which we are over stimulated by advertisers displaying happy, sexy, buff models luring you to buy their products because it will make your life better. We try to live politically correct lives with our big houses and shiny cars and 2.5 children—the “American Dream,” if you will. We rarely take the time to step back and look at those less fortunate than us. We have become a society that turns a blind eye to the things that make us uncomfortable. They become somebody else’s problem. Until that somebody else is someone you love, and they have just disclosed their HIV status to you. You can’t help yourself, but you immediately look at them differently and it is written all over your face. Perhaps you pull away. Perhaps you embrace them. But what is really running through your head?

As we look at HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination and identify the prejudices, negative attitudes, the abuse and maltreatment that is directed at those living with HIV/AIDS, we begin to truly understand the wide range of negative effects stigma has on our communities. The consequences of stigma and discrimination play a huge role in the misinformation and fear that surrounds HIV/AIDS today, even 30 years after the epidemic began. When stigma is present, the simple task of going to your health care professional and asking for an HIV test is laced with judgements of “socially unacceptable” behaviours. Stigma makes it more difficult for people trying to come to terms with their own HIV positive status, especially if you have been shunned by your family, friends or community. Isolation may become your best friend, your confidant.

In Canada today it is estimated that there are 74,000 people living with HIV/AIDS and, unfortunately, of those 74,000 people, 25 per cent of them do not even know they are HIV positive. If left untreated, HIV can compromise you immune system and make you vulnerable to opportunistic infections such as: pneumonia, lymphoma and/or Kaposi sarcoma. The subsequent immune suppression matched with an opportunistic infection could lead to an AIDS diagnosis if left untreated. We speak of reaching a goal of becoming an AIDS-free generation, yet how can we do this if we don’t even address the stigma that still surrounds getting tested for HIV. Become part of an AIDS free generation and get tested for HIV. Imagine the impact on our society!

ACCKWA’s Testing Clinic Thursdays 4-7pm
639 King St. W. Suite 203

See you there!

Carolyn interviews ACCKWA

What brought you to ACCKWA?

CB: I’ve always had an interest in sexual health. I did a placement at the AIDS Committee of Durham Region, and that’s what led me to the HIV sector. After I graduated, I applied to a number of positions at different ASOs (AIDS Service Organizations) and I chose this one.

VL: I was doing volunteer work at the AIDS Committee of Toronto, and I met Colin at an event. I came to ACCKWA because it was a field I was interested in, and also my passion.

DC: For me, this was my way to honour two men who have been very influential in my life.

LC: I was looking for a place to volunteer in our community. I knew it had to be about something that was important to me and my family.

CW: For me, 40 was just around the corner and I wanted to re-evaluate where I was in life. It was time to give back.

JH: I’m super passionate about Harm Reduction, and I love working with people who use drugs.

PM: I came to ACCKWA as a PHA [person living with HIV/AIDS] for the love, help, and support that was available.

What makes ACCKWA special?

CB: We try to avoid a “clinical” vibe. We value the diversities of the community we serve. We can never be all things to all people, but we sure as hell try.

DK: Everybody’s unique and makes you feel like family.

PM: ACCKWA is special because we care for the wellbeing of everybody.

JH: We’re very diverse – in who we serve, and the makeup of the agency. I like not being the token gay person. –Laughs-

PC: We’ve experienced growth and success within a conservative local culture.

RC: We do a lot with the amount of folks we have.

SA: It’s hard to explain what makes ACCKWA special; it’s more of a feeling. Staff members truly care about what they’re doing; it’s not “just work” for us. Add in our volunteers & PHAs, and ACCKWA has the feeling of being a big, dysfunctional, awesome family.

What can people expect when they walk through ACCKWA’s doors?

JH: My smiling face! –Laughs- Well, it’s true! [Her office is right off the main entrance and waiting room.]

DC:  Warmth and acceptance.  We meet people where they are at and do our best to make sure that they feel welcome the moment they enter our door.

CB: To be treated with respect and dignity.

DK: Always friendly, non-judgmental.

SA: A welcoming environment, Lynn’s laughter, and friendly shoulders to lean on/people to talk to.

RC: A warm welcome, and we’ll let you set the agenda.

VL: A welcoming place that provides very comprehensive sexual health resources and info on harm reduction practices. Open to answering any questions that people may have.

What do you see in ACCKWA’s future?

PC: An office with an elevator! I also think ACCKWA will become a recognizable source of solidarity for harm reduction and positive prevention.

CW: Being seen as a respected stakeholder in the community.

VL: Further development of programs, inclusive and far-reaching within the Region.

DK: Lots more gatherings! Also, people becoming more educated and informed in our community.

PM: I want to see us being able to reach out to everybody, and people not being or afraid or embarrassed.

LC: I have been a part of incredible growth both in the agency and with PHAs, and I long for the day we can put HIV stigma to rest!

What is your favourite thing about ACCKWA?

DK: Oh my god, just one? -Laughs- Always feeling welcome.

CB: The staff; I love working with everyone here. We’re a really good team that’s diverse in personality and approach, but we all have the same broad goal: to prevent HIV transmission, support people living with HIV, and eliminate HIV stigma.

PC: The family-like environment.

VL: I can walk through the door and feel like “I am part of this. I am part of this family.”

CW: My favourite thing about ACCKWA is the clients.

RC: The karaoke machine. – Laughs- I just saw it one day and was like ‘Where did this come from?’

JH: The people. The people are awesome sauce.

Nov 15-21: This week’s Best of #KissHIVGoodbye

Some truly awesome submissions this week, from the #KissHIVGoodbye drag show at Sizzle, to blasts from the past, to pets puckering up. Even Elmo got dressed in red to support HIV/AIDS awareness! Thank you to everyone who participated, we love seeing how much fun you’re having with the photos. And did we mention how beautiful you all look?

DNaw big group CarolPat DRAG Elisa Elmo fancy ha Hogan imagejpeg_3 JessFriend Jex kisses Kitty Loss markusmatthew MotherDaughter new other big group PatCarol Sabrina throwback Victor Yay young

What ACCKWA is to me – Wayne

When I was diagnosed with HIV, they told me that I was doing well, my body was able to control the virus. I didn’t need to take medications and was able to just go on with my life. I did check in with a local ASO (AIDS Service Organization) but I didn’t see a need to continue to go on a regular basis.

As the years went on, I began to tell friends, family, and potential partners about my HIV status. Over time, I noticed people leaving my life. People I spent a lot of time with didn’t call as much, I wasn’t being invited out as often. In some ways I allowed it to happen. Disclosing my status, I was being rejected and began to go into isolation. I began to see the stigma – not just from others, I was stigmatizing myself too.

Eventually I went back to the ASO. I needed to be around people like me, I needed to learn how to help myself holistically to live a healthy life. I realized I couldn’t get through this with just the help of my doctor.

At ACCKWA, I was able to meet people just like me. We learn and share from each other’s experiences.  I have learned to do public speaking, I attended workshops and trainings and now I can facilitate workshops myself. The workshops we host come from our ideas, what we need to make life better for people who are living with HIV.

I am so grateful to ACCKWA and for my peers who have helped me along my journey. I’m not alone.

– Wayne

What ACCKWA is to me – John

I’m so devoted to helping fight stigma as it’s been a large part of my entire life.  I’ve always felt that personal choices should be just that, and not to be slandered for wishing to live your life as you see fit.  I’ve fought through the stigma realizing that what I choose to do with my life and hopefully not only bettering myself as an individual, but also helping others around me to better understand and appreciate their own choices in life.

ACCKWA has meant so much to me over the years, for which I’ll forever be grateful.  In the earlier years it was a safe and protective environment where I could feel wanted and appreciated for who I was and what I was going through.  As time moved forward, ACCKWA provided me with additional means to use my own resources to their fullest potenti

I’ve acquired a sense of belonging in the community with respect to my volunteer work over the years with ACCKWA.  My biggest achievement is helping to raise donations within the KW Region to help with various fundraising events.  I also feel appreciated when I do public speaking in the school sector on living with HIV to help raise awareness, and this has also helped me to overcome certain weaknesses from when I was bullied for making my own choices.

– John Henry Rombough-Davie

AAW 2014 – Lynn

How did I end up at ACCKWA?

As I looked for a place to volunteer in our community, I knew it had to be about something that was important to me and my family. When a friend told me that ACCKWA was looking for Board Members, I immediately sought information about this agency.

I learned that ACCKWA was about supporting people with HIV and that many of those infected at that time were gay men; it started to make sense to me because my son is gay.  There was great outreach education happening for those who were at risk for HIV and again, one aspect of this that I saw was to gay men at Kitchener’s gay bar.  The more I learned, the more I realized that this was a place I wanted to be a part of!

In 2004, I was accepted onto the Board of Directors. Never was my intention to work at ACCKWA, I just wanted to help the agency in any way I could. For the next 2 years I was deeply involved in fundraising, the Board, and outreach at Club Ren. It was such an amazing experience—I learned so much and I knew I would be one of those volunteers that would celebrate a 10 year anniversary, or maybe more!

In 2006, the position for Coordinator of Volunteers became open and everyone at ACCKWA told me I should apply.  I wasn’t certain that I wanted to change my employment but I went ahead with my application and have not looked back since.

I have had an incredible time at ACCKWA as the Coordinator of Volunteers, Director of Operations, and currently I sit in the best position ever… PHA Capacity Development Coordinator.  I work with an awesome team of PHAs, staff, and volunteers! I have been a part of incredible growth, both in the agency and with PHAs, and long for the day we can put stigma to rest!

Go, TEAM!!

– Lynn

My placement at ACCKWA – Sabrina

I am a fourth year student at Wilfrid Laurier University in the health sciences program. I was interested in pursuing an internship at ACCKWA because I want to advocate for social justice in the Kitchener-Waterloo community. Throughout my university career, I had learned about illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, and even learned about how individuals living with HIV/AIDS had been stigmatized against; however, I had never had the real-life experience of seeing just how many barriers these individuals must overcome in order to access services. In one word, my time at ACCKWA so far has been amazing.

The staff at ACCKWA is extremely welcoming and supportive, and it is very clear that they are passionate about reducing the many barriers that exist in regards to health services. It was obvious to me when I first came to ACCKWA that the staff here is extremely committed to their work, which I find truly inspiring. I have never before seen the level of compassion that ACCKWA has, and they work at a very personal level—one that physicians and other health care professionals fail to achieve. Not only do they care about preventing HIV/AIDS among individuals in the K-W community, they want to make the lives of those currently living with HIV/AIDS better by reducing the associated stigma.

When I was told about the #KissHIVGoodbye campaign and the objective to raise awareness and reduce stigma, I immediately loved the idea because of the unique approach that ACCKWA was using. By putting the campaign on social media, it will get the message out to a large population of individuals that the stigma against individuals living with HIV/AIDS needs to stop. The stigma is unwarranted and undeserved. The sooner everyone recognizes that, the faster we can change the lives of those who we, as a Canadian population, have let down. I am absolutely honoured to be part of an organization who is dedicated to such an important cause with individuals who are truly inspiring.

– Sabrina

AAW 2014 – Sydney

As one of the newest members of the ACCKWA family, I feel so overwhelmingly lucky to find myself among the company and talents of such wonderful people. Walking into the ACCKWA office, you can feel the dedication and hard work of the staff and volunteers. These people care about what they’re doing; it’s not “just work” for them.

As the new Youth Services Worker, I have been able to learn from my colleagues and members of our community, and pass that knowledge along to youth in the Region. My job entails that I meet youth where they’re at and provide them with the resources they need (be it information or condoms) to make the best decisions possible for themselves- how cool is that? It’s inspiring how receptive the young people we work with are to new ideas and information, and how willing they are to pass along our messages to friends/family. I look forward to what’s ahead for ACCKWA and continuing our work with youth in the community!

Also, P.S. – Check out our #KissHIVGoodbye campaign happening now and DoinIt.ca, our sexual health website for youth in Waterloo Region!

– Sydney