For the first time three years ago, Al decided to publicly share his experiences of living with HIV within his own Richmond community. He was absolutely terrified.
“I thought, ‘what would the reaction be?’ But it’s been extremely positive so far,” said Al ((last name withheld).
He volunteers for the Heart of Richmond AIDS Society’s High School 101 program, where members visit various high schools to educate students about the virus and to dispel myths. And of those, there are plenty.
“Stigma is a major, major challenge,” said Al. “Especially when it comes to transmission. Some people still think you can’t share a plate of food, which is just wrong. And it’s not contagious. “I always think how does this affect my friends and family. If it was any other illness, we may not have the same hesitation.
“It’s unfair actually that we allow it to happen while people are fighting for their lives here.”
Raising awareness and giving people a better understanding of the virus are some of the main things the society strives towards.
It’ll be part of its 11th Annual Heart & Soul dinner and dance fundraiser next Saturday, Oct. 19 at the Radisson Vancouver Airport Hotel. All proceeds go towards the society’s initiatives such as its Safeway Grocery Voucher program, one-on-one counseling, the weekly support group and High School 101.
“I would say some of the main challenges right now would be nutrition and getting access to quality food at a reasonable rate,” said Carl Bailey, president of the society. “Mental stability is also affected because they spend a lot of time worrying about health, about expenses, about what people will think if they’re open about their illness.”
Many members live on long-term disability, as they are prone to fatigue and various side effects from the medications. Al volunteers as much as possible, but can get run down easily, as the virus targets the immune system.
But it’s a far cry from where he was 23 years ago when he first received his diagnosis at the age of 26.
The year was 1990, at the height of the outbreak, and the outlook for someone with HIV was dire.
“It significantly changed the direction of my life,” Al said. “Any future plans I had vanished, I couldn’t think three months down the road.”
Although advances in medication have extended life expectancy, Bailey has seen a change in demographics.
“We’re seeing more single parents and seniors,” he said. “With seniors, they think it’s a different lifestyle that’s affected and it won’t affect them. Sometimes people also hear the meds can contain the HIV, so they're less cautious.”
The fundraiser will feature MC Fred Lee and a drag queen show. For more information and to enter the WestJet raffle with a chance to win two airfare tickets anywhere West Jet travels, visit www.heartandsoulfundraiser.com.
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