In Honor of World AIDS Day, Promote Education With a Conversation


Despite the bright lights, window displays and general sense of cheer that rolls around every December, many who suffer from the deadly virus known as AIDS aren’t caroling or wrapping gifts.

The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a community-based AIDS service organization, is located in the the Tisch Building on W. 24th Street. (Sarah Fernando/The Observer)

On a crisp Wednesday afternoon last winter, a middle-aged woman walked into the food pantry at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), a community-based AIDS service organization. With her young daughter sitting patiently in the waiting area, the woman begged my supervisor and me, in a quiet whisper, neither to speak of her illness nor to say anything within earshot of her daughter that would make it clear it was a pantry specifically for people suffering from AIDS. She would be too humiliated, she said, to ever face her daughter if she found out.

This is only one of many heartbreaking cases I have witnessed during my time participating in a six-month volunteer program at GMHC. Because of the stigma that surrounds HIV and AIDS, many people who suffer are left alone in their pain. From the phone conversations I have had with terrified clients to the caution I have had to use when leaving voice mails on answering machines, it has become clear to me that there is a devastating stigma attached to this virus. And for this stigma to dissipate, we all have an obligation to continue the discussion of HIV and AIDS and promote understanding and support for those who suffer from it.

Maybe those who suffer from HIV or AIDS are simply anonymous individuals to you. They were once the same to me. On my very first day of volunteering, that all changed. Before I even set foot in the center, I walked into a small corner café to grab a much needed cup of coffee. I was surprised to later see several of the shop’s patrons arrive at GMHC for checkups. Before, I had pushed those who suffer from the virus into anonymity: they were individuals you heard about during fundraising efforts or on the news, far removed from daily life.

But actually seeing and talking to the victims of HIV and AIDS showed me that this is a problem that affects people we run into every day. And the statistics back this up: according to a July 2010 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the United States, more than one million people are living with HIV and more than 18,000 people with AIDS die each year. Just to put that into perspective, every year AIDS wipes out a segment of the population as large as Rhode Island.

The opportunity to touch the lives of those in need has been eye opening and life changing.

I volunteered with men and women from different age groups, sexualities, professions and incomes. Ambivalent at first about what a student could really do to help, I quickly learned that the fight against AIDS involves everyone, not just the scientific researchers working to find a medical cure. From simple filing to meetings about electing officials who will adequately address the crisis to newsletter writing, just about any effort can make a difference.

The most important lesson I learned at GMHC is that there are no easy solutions to complex problems. We can’t expect problems to disappear if we don’t take an active role in working for change. And you can begin right now, whether it’s buying a cookie at a fundraising event or volunteering your time and energy to one of the many organizations right here in New York.

Even if you simply take a few minutes out of your busy holiday schedule to educate your roommates or family members about this deadly virus, you will be making a difference. For any change to take place, people must be aware of the problem.

I hope that soon a cure will be found for this deadly virus. Until then, it is up to each and every one of us to step in and make the burden more bearable and continue the conversation.