Many may think that the threat of contracting HIV/AIDS is just a crisis of the 1980’s, but recent statistics beg to differ. According to a Texas Medical Society Journal study, since 2006, the number of Austin residents living with HIV/AIDS has increased by more than 40%, proving that the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is still very relevant. This also proves there’s still a great need for non-profit organizations like The Wright House Wellness Center.
Since 1988, WHWC has served those affected by chronic illnesses like HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C through outreach, health and holistic services, care coordination, and education. By providing affordable resources and counseling, like The Wright House Wellness Center HIV Support Group, impacted individuals get a chance to experience an improved quality of life. Below, WHWC Board Vice President, Melissa Cook, Support Group Counselor Karen Breeding, and long-time HIV Support Group member, Roy Adkins share the importance of WHWC and why services they offer, such as the HIV Support Group, still serve as a unique pillar in the Central Texas community.
How did you first get involved with the board and why do you think it was important to take that step?
WHWC Board Vice President, Melissa Cook: In 2012, (early in the year) the organization (The Wright House Wellness Center) lost its funding, which meant the support group and the individual counseling services that The Wright House offered was in jeopardy of going away. Around that same time, the White House’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy came out, one of the first publicized efforts to start looking at prevention in a different way and making sure that people who know their status have the support they need. I was aware that the HIV Support Group here at The Wright House was a pretty unique service with a very diverse group – probably the longest running support group for HIV/AIDS here in Austin and I believed that group fell right in line with the new prevention efforts. It was really important to me that The Wright House continue to offer this gem of a service that really wasn’t being offered any where else with the success we had.
Once that announcement came out – that the funding was lost and that the group was going to end in March of that year – I reached out to members of the board and expressed my concern. The board president suggested that I join the board. I took him up on his offer and decided to put my money where my mouth was to help save this very important service The Wright House has.
What kind of successes have you seen with the program?
MC: The board was visited by a couple group members about a month after the announcement that we had lost the funding. Group members came in and shared their stories of what the group meant to them, which really ignited a commitment from the board. Many of our board members hadn’t really met the clients, or knew about this service. This was the first time a lot of them got to see why they were putting so much effort, time, and energy into being on the board. They made a commitment, grant funding or no grant funding, that the HIV Support Group would continued to be offered. Because of that, the Support Group is still here today! As for what successes the group has had, we have folks that have previously been out of care and back into care; we have folks that are newly diagnosed coming in and getting the support they need to maintain their jobs, housing, and insurance, and they now have the courage and support to address the problem that is standing right in front of them.
How has The Wright House evolved over time?
MC: As the treatment of HIV has progressed in the past 25 years, the services and focus of the agency has evolved. Members of the support group will tell you that 15+ years ago, the group was a place where people got support for dying. Then, there was this dramatic shift when the medications became a lot more effective and manageable, and [the Support Group] was no longer a place to come to figure out how to die but rather how to live.
How did you get started with The Wright House HIV Support Group?
Support Group Counselor, Karen Breeding: I’d worked in HIV non-profits for many years in Louisiana and Texas. I started a private counseling practice in 2000, and accepted a contract with The Wright House in 2002 to offer individual counseling to their clients. A year or so after that, they needed somebody to take over the group (because the counselor before was departing). I said yes.
What’s your approach to facilitating the group?
KB: It’s pretty laid back. Our group is truly a support group, so I just try to hold space for the clients to support each other and get the support they need. Some of the group members have been in the group so long that it almost runs itself.
I’ve facilitated in different ways over the years because as group members change, the needs of the group changes too. The only thing that we’ve done since the beginning is we open and close the group with a short meditation. I think that contains the group, gives it a bit of ritual and creates sacredness to what we are doing.
Can you describe the early days of The Wright House HIV Support Group?
Long-time HIV Support Group member, Roy Adkins: They were depressing because people were dying. In the early 90’s the new combos came and that was the tail end of everybody dying. Before that it was kind of depressing going to group because you never knew who was going to be there and who wasn’t, or so and so is in the hospital and had passed by the next week. Some people tried to be fun with it. One guy had a catheter and would shoot water at everybody and things like that. You know, you try to make the best of it. Fortunately, in the past few years the group hasn’t had to deal with that. There have been very few that have passed.
What makes you attend the HIV Support Group after all these years?
RA: I come to group for support because sometimes I just need somebody to talk to. Also, I come to group because I like to hear people’s stories. I like to be there when somebody comes in and they have just been diagnosed and they are just filled with questions. They are so frustrated and afraid, and I feel like I can look at them and say that I have been dealing with this for 30 years. As long as you see a doctor you are going to be OK. Don’t be afraid. Take a deep breath and a step back. It’s another rock in the road. There are many years in front of you. So you know, don’t max out your credit cards like I did, don’t spend your savings because you are going to live and need it.
You say you like to hear other people’s stories and help people that are newly diagnosed. What are some pieces of advice that you give to them?
RA: Take your medicine and take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself and maintaining a positive attitude are the most important pieces of advice I can give anyone. And I think hearing other peoples problems helps me take care of myself. I live by myself. I don’t have that much interaction with people. I have a social circle, but I think the group helps me stay young.
How does the group act as a safe haven when a group member is in the process of coming out?
RA: [The Support Group] is like a cruise that I go on with other people [with HIV/AIDS]. There are about 250 of us that are HIV positive and go on a cruise once a year. It’s so fun to go with that group because you don’t have to worry that you are HIV positive. There are retreats like that too. It just takes the issue out of the whole equation. So when we come to the HIV Support Group, HIV is not an issue. There is a wealth of information and unending empathy in the group.
Join The Wright House Wellness Center on Oct. 17 for “Midnight in Wonderland,” a fundraising event in support of Central Texans affected by, living with, or at-risk for HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.