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Aging with HIV focus of Reunion Project event
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2019-06-17

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The Reunion Project 2.0—Chicago hosted a two day event focused on people aging with HIV June 14-15 at Loyola University's Water Tower Campus.

The day-long employment resource event organized by National Working Positive Coalition took place June 14 with opening remarks by Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Office of Employment and Training Deputy Director Julio Rodriguez.

Sessions included considering work, navigating work earnings and government benefits, legal rights and protections in the workplace and strategies and resources to maximize options and success in job seeking and at work.

To kick off the June 15 town-hall style meeting on "HIV, Aging, Surviving and Thriving: A Family Reunion" both The Reunion Project Co-Founder, Positively Aware editor and TPAN Director of Publications Jeff Berry and TPAN CEO Christopher Clark spoke about the importance of holding these events across the country and what it means to them.

National AIDS Memorial Board of Directors Chair Mike Shriver recapped the previous day's activities, adding what he took away from it was that "no matter where you live in the country, the system is meant to frustrate those of us living with HIV."

Performer and former Windy City Times contributing writer Sanford Gaylord gave a rousing spoken-word performance from Craig G. Harris' work "Cut Off From Among Their People."

The Global Girls' Marvinetta Woodley-Penn, Arzula Maxine Gardner, Shawneita Irvin and Ryonn Gloster performed their "My Choice. My Voice. My Vote." storytelling, singing and movement piece focused on reproductive access and inclusive, comprehensive sex-education; including the right to get an abortion.

Gregg Cassin, who created the Honoring Our Experience retreats for long-term survivors of HIV, spoke about the power of sharing one's stories. Cassin asked attendees to share their stories and what was evident from every person who spoke was the shame and stigma of HIV and how it has caused social isolation, especially for those who are older.

Loyola University School of Social Work Assistant Professor Keith Green gave the keynote address, "Saved by Spirit, Science and Semi-Structured Social Support: Musings from a long-term survivor who recently turned 40."

Green told his story of being diagnosed with HIV when he was a senior at Hyde Park High School ( when he was 17 ) in 1994, when he took part in a blood drive via Lifesource ( now Vitalant ). He explained that the stigma of having HIV, especially as a young man in the prime of his life, was too much to handle at times and he decided that death would be a better choice. Green said this led him to move to North Carolina in 2001 to die—and he came very close to it via an infection, resulting in him becoming very thin and frail.

In speaking about his career journey, Green said it started with being in a hospital in North Carolina when he got some literature that included Positively Aware magazine. He explained that seeing that the magazine was published in Chicago made him want to move back and connect with the organization, which he did. That led to a volunteer position at TPAN ( where the magazine is published ) that turned into a paying job.

Green spoke to the challenges with diversity and inclusion that existed within many AIDS service organization at the time, and still today. Although TPAN was founded by a group of gay white men during the early days of the epidemic, the organization had appointed its second African American executive director, Charles Clifton, by the time Green stumbled upon it. Green said he found solace in the organization's emerging diverse programming, ultimately becoming a mentee of both Clifton and Berry. When he was first hired, Green explained that he was still recovering from his infection. At times, this forced him to have to lie on the couch and rest during the work day and no one, especially Berry, made him feel bad about it.

"The unconditional support was vital," said Green.

Green explained that due to Clifton and Berry's mentorship when he came back to Chicago, he was able to further his education and move from TPAN and become a project director at John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County, Director of Federal Affairs at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) and his current position at Loyola University where, to his surprise, he has been able to bring his full self into his work and talk about LGBTQ issues and HIV/AIDS.

"The only way we will end disparities related to HIV healthcare is at the intersection of spirituality, science and semi-structured social support which is what we have here today," said Green.

Among the day's other activities were remarks by National Working Positive Coalition Executive Director Mark Misrok who spoke about being impressed by Rodriguez' address the previous day, Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus Equity Coordinator Louis Spraggins who gave some background on The Reunion Project, and The Reunion Project Co-Founder Matt Sharp explaining the history of AIDS activism ahead of an ice breaker activity led by Shriver and Ribbon Consulting Group, LLC Co-Founder Vanessa Johnson.

Other speakers included Cook County Health and Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center Attending Physician Dr. Gregory Huhn who did a presentation on the ways in which other health issues interact with people who have HIV and how to mitigate them by changing the way one lives such as smoking cessation, eating a healthy diet and exercising. AFC Prevention and Community Partnerships Vice President Cynthia Tucker spoke about the corrections case management program at AFC to help formerly incarcerated cisgender and transgender people with HIV navigate the world following their release from prison and University of Illinois at Chicago Associate Professor of Psychiatry Lisa Razzano who focused on mental health for those aging with HIV.

The Reunion Project 2.0-Chicago event was supported by Positively Aging— a collaboration of The Reunion Project, TPAN and Positively Aware magazine—and Gilead Sciences' Age Positively initiative.

AFC, Brave Space Alliance, Chicago Center for HIV Elimination, Chicago Department of Health, Chicago Area HIV Integrated Services Council, Loyola University Chicago, Rush Center of Excellence on Disparities in HIV and Aging, Vida/SIDA and the Women's Connection Program at the AFC were the other event collaborating partners.

See www.tpan.com/reunion-project .


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