Today is World AIDS Day...how do I know? From 2002 to 2008 I worked at one of the most amazing a life-changing non-profits around, Bay Area Young (BAY) Positivesin San Francisco. BAY Positives is known as the world's first peer-based non-profit serving HIV positive youth in the S.F. area.
It got it's start with just 2 people..a young man and a young woman who were recently diagnosed as HIV positive in the very early 1990's. Now you have to remember that back in the day, most HIV "support" groups were basically euphemisms for how to deal with death and dying support groups. The majority were filled with older gay men who were either themselves HIV positive or were in a relationship with someone who was poz. Additionally, and more importantly, the early 90's were years away from viable HIV meds or the HIV cocktail which made life after a HIV positive diagnosis possible. The young man and woman decided that they were not getting the type of support they needed/wanted/demanded as HIV positive youth, and began holding scheduled meetings in one of their living rooms. Word spread very quickly, and they were granted a 501(c)3/non-profit status soon after.
One of the first reactions I used to get all the time after telling people I worked with HIV positive youth was...."omg how horribly depressing!" Death and dying are never easy topics, but I continued to be surprised at other's visceral reaction to my chosen career path. Yes, parts of the job were depressing. It was difficult knowing that the agency I worked for was once considered the "golden child" of the city and had once maintained a funding budget well over $1 million. By the time I left in 2008, the budget was so depressingly small we operated on less then $350k. And yes, it was depressing to sometimes see as a HIV negative person how much many of the youth struggled with daily life.
What I loved most about BAY Positives was my ability to make a direct (and hopefully positive) impact on the member's lives. To me, BAY Positives was their agency and a safe haven from the rest of the world. The members could come in and grab something to eat, surf the web, watch t.v., shoot the shit, take a nap, and for the most part, we never wanted a thing back from them. Yes, you had to not raid the fridge, monopolize the computers if others were waiting, or masturbate or have sex in the back lounge, but other then that you were good. BAY Positives was a place were you could be who you were (or in some cases, who or what gender you wanted to be for that day) and not get hassled or asked a lot of questions.
The majority of the members were between 19 and 26 years old, identified as being other then heterosexual, and were often described as being one of the hardest to reach populations in San Francisco. They were hard to reach for many, many reasons; youth by nature tend to be nomadic (and San Francisco is not an easily affordable place to live), many lacked high school diplomas or viable careers, many had tumultuous relationships with their family, if they had a relationship at all, many were active drug users/abusers, others had habitual anonymous sex without ever telling their partners their HIV status. In fact, all too often, their biggest obstacles in life were themselves. They were addicted to the drama, foolishness, and carrying-on in their lives. It was almost like you could see them stirring the pot at the very same time they were coming to you drained and weary and ready to make a change. As a service provider, this was super frustrating, but I would not exactly call it sad.
BAY Positives will always hold a very special place in my heart! It's a place that I can say with absolute certainty that I (and my work-husband) helped save from certain financial ruin and closure. During my time there we also elevated the level of service given to the members (sometimes this meant leaving them the fuck alone) while providing our funders with professionalism and a constant striving for excellence not often seen in the non-profit world.
So it's on World AIDS Day and with much love and hope that I thank everyone I worked with at BAY Positives.
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