Learning to Fight AIDS and Love Life
ASB volunteers spend a week at NYC’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis
Following up on our “Tweets from the Road” series, BU Today this week rolls out four stories on this year’s Alternative Spring Breaks — two each from New York City and Missouri. Today we start in the Big Apple with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. We return tomorrow for volunteers’ reflections on their service.
One thing volunteers at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis on Manhattan’s West 24th Street cannot be is shy. Name a delicate topic — STDs, HIV, contraception, homosexuality — it’s talked about in detail.
So it was a good thing that the 14 BU students who spent Alternative Spring Breaks there were no shrinking violets. They asked probing questions, role-played with gusto, and were unfazed by the required handling of packages of condoms. They comfortably shared meals and stories with clients living with HIV and AIDS.
The New York group was one of 35 BU teams that spread across the country — from Seattle and Texas to Puerto Rico and Maine — to spend their spring break helping people. Some boarded planes, but most stuffed into vans and rode buses to distant sites, where they worked on issues ranging from affordable housing and the environment to hunger and human rights.
And while most of the New York City volunteers didn’t travel far from home, the world they visited was a very long way from the world they lived in.
The GMHC was started in 1981, when six men decided to confront a mysterious and deadly disease known only as the gay men’s health crisis. The group set up an answering machine and the first AIDS hotline was launched. On its first night, it received more than 100 calls.
The nonprofit’s efforts in HIV prevention, care, and advocacy continue to this day, offering thousands of clients free HIV testing and consultation, a wellness program, GED courses, dining services, and legal aid.
The group from BU joined students from Eastern Kentucky University and George Mason University, all of whom spent their whole spring break attending information sessions, working in the dining hall, and packaging materials for New York City’s 25th-anniversary AIDS Walk, slated for May 16.
Much of the talk at GMHC was about “keepin’ it real,” as Jenné Bougouneau (CAS’13) would say. One workshop, titled Negotiating Safer Sex, started with students sporting on their foreheads a sticky note with a sex-related word — like female condom, foreplay, or dental dam. They had to guess what their word was, based on answers to yes-no questions. (Try that for an icebreaker.)
Students also role-played scenarios that required them to negotiate safe sex with their partners. Pairs were given a script outline — such as, “I’m too big for condoms” or “But it just doesn’t feel as good” — and they conducted the rest of the conversation in front of 30 people.
One morning, a GMHC employee threw a Pussy Pack Party, where she taught students how to package a dental dam, condoms, lube, and finger cots in a cardboard package with a drawing of a kitten on it. She later led a round of Jeopardy, where most answers related to STDs and HIV.
And for the first time in at least some of the students’ lives, sex was discussed openly, unabashedly, and often with humor.
“I like that sex is not taboo,” said Kaitlin Bresee (COM’13). “I like that there’s no judgment.”
Each day, the students met someone living with HIV or AIDS. They asked about antiretroviral medication and its side effects, how those infected had told their families, and whether dating was still an option. Above all, they learned that an HIV-positive test is not a death sentence.
“For me,” says Parissa Salimian (CAS’12), “it really humanized AIDS.”
Most students had arrived with some knowledge of HIV and AIDS, but all were surprised by how much they didn’t know. “I didn’t really understand as much as I thought I did,” says Alanna Sobel (SAR’13).
One revelation hit close to home: the fastest growing population being infected with HIV is women ages 14 to 24. That’s them — or their friends, girlfriends, and sisters.
In the afternoons, volunteers gathered around folding tables, sorting and stamping brochures into packets of 25, organizing posters, and slapping stickers on cardboard stands advertising the upcoming AIDS Walk. And while the work itself was tedious, the days were not. The volunteers swapped stories, raided the snack bag, and shared favorite tunes from their iPods. (Lady Gaga became the group’s unofficial mascot.)
Of all their daily activities, lunch was the one that brought the BU students’ experience into focus. There they were welcomed into the diverse and family-like community of HIV-positive people. There were men and women, young and old, muscle-bound and emaciated, black, white, and everyone in between.
Students examined bottles of medication, listened to complaints about city resources (or lack thereof) for people living with HIV, were introduced to partners and told of loss — all over soup, salad, and a plate of lasagna. And like lunch partners anywhere, they chatted with clients about fashion, sports, Boston, and fun spots around NYC.
That’s because, as every student learned, people with AIDS and people without AIDS have a great deal in common: they’re all people.
Read about other spring break initiatives from around the country and from previous years here.