Staff Meetings

Staff meetings routinely astound and humble me – this once a month gathering of (now) 100 employees, from eight (8) sites in nine (9) counties. The room is always full of good energy as folks reacquaint, swapping stories and perspectives. Just being together with others who share a common experience and understanding of the world is powerful. Everyone gains; everyone’s level of commitment is reinforced; everyone leaves the room more whole. At least that’s how I see it…
The meetings have a certain ritual, always culminating in ‘client presentations’, which might be from any one of our programs: it is critical to me that everyone on staff, no matter their job, have a feel for the real life circumstances/needs of our clients and the actual activities staff pursue to address the needs in question: “Who are these individuals we all work on behalf of..?” Presentations are anonymous with only individual and regional demographics shared. The stories are always sobering and often heart breaking, despite the many ‘happy endings’.
This past meeting our Q Center case manager, gave us a rapid-fire briefing on four teen (16 -17) referrals he had the previous week. As is he, the service is new, only recently funded, and now that word is getting out, we are starting to get referrals from our entire region, despite the Q serving primarily Onondaga County LGBTQ youth
Two of the referrals were from correctional facilities, one from concerned school personnel, and one from a social service agency in another county. Each referral is a story in itself, but the one that captured my imagination most had to do with a young man from a rural area some 50+ miles away. He is 17 and has been home-schooled his entire life. His (long-time foster) family adheres to a strict Christian fundamental religious philosophy/sect, and he has never been allowed access to TV, video games, movies, cellphone, internet, etc. He recently came out as gay and his parents immediately forced him into a church-related, ‘conversion’ program. Eventually resisting the programs’ philosophy and requirements he was promptly locked out of his home and all of his clothing/belongings’ were either destroyed or burned. Such is what all too often passes as Christian these days… I digress, I know…
Someone in social services gave us a call about this young man and our staff member immediately jumped in his car, picked up the youth in question, brought him to the Q Center, eventually finding him a safe local shelter placement.
The car ride alone proved to be a wonder to this young man: wide-eyed he stared at all the city activity, advertisements, and businesses. Once in the Q Center, he was completely overwhelmed: never in his wildest dreams had he imagined a vibrant welcoming safe space full of other young people like himself, who also understood themselves as, different from the norm: he was, at last, “home”.
So, happy ending, yes..!? Well, as in most of life, nothing is quite that simple. Because he is a minor his foster parents, despite their having thrown him out, have say as to where he can go while he lives at the shelter, and they are not allowing him to return to the Q Center…
Regardless of the visiting/destination restrictions, we’re not forgetting him, and our case manager has been in daily contact. He feels welcomed and safe at the shelter; more importantly, he now knows he is not alone – that there are others who celebrate and value who he is – as he is, others who share a common experience, others whose stories mirror his, others who are committed to leave shame aside and live ‘whole’ in their unique way of being-in-the world.
He’ll never know that his story, his struggle, his courage, has left a 100 strangers, most of whom he will never meet, more thoughtful, more committed, more whole.
Astounding and humbling.

 

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Pope Francis

It’s been difficult not to think about the Pope lately: Time Magazine Person of the Year (2013), eschewing the trappings of past prelates, carrying his own bags, driving his used car, living in a stripped down guest house, caressing infants, wandering children, and shunned adults each with the same delight and tenderness… Then we find out he used to be bouncer in his younger days: what’s not to like?!
Apparently our man Rush managed to trash Francis: I knew then the Pope was definitely doing something right: I mean, correct. The Pope, taking the name of a wealthy young guy from Assisi who stripped naked and turned his back on a life of privilege and commerce (when will Rush be dissing St. Francis for his anti-capitalist positions?), has had the temerity to suggest that perhaps not all is well when so many on this globe live in the worst of poverty while so few enjoy unprecedented wealth; perhaps not all is well when so many live homeless, starving, and dying from treatable disease; perhaps the ‘haves’ might want to take a serious look at all those ‘nots’ and extend a hand while repairing a system or two…? I digress… a bit.
Here, we do not entertain, knowingly, the top 1%… It is the ‘poor getting poorer’ who primarily seek out our services. When I was hired 24 years ago it took me a while to realize that our clients were struggling not only with a life threatening virus but (many) with the devastating effects of poverty: their housing in constant jeopardy, no reliable means of transportation, victims of sexual and physical abuse, dependent on benefits that never came close to meeting basic needs, no experience of routine preventative health care etc. etc…. It’s only gotten worse…
On a daily basis I feel like I’m being subjected to a media ‘howl’ from right wing hyenas, about the fact of the Affordable Care Act: no howls however about the millions without health care! Rather all the screeching is saved for the new law’s roll out, and about how some will pay more, and about how some can’t keep old plans, and about the young’s ambivalence, etc. “The conversation” has, as they say, been hijacked, and both the plight and hope of those uninsured millions buried in babble. Could we consider celebrating what this law and opportunity means to millions of vulnerable and struggling Americans…?! Radical concept, I know…
Everyday our waiting rooms in Syracuse, Utica, Cayuga, Canton, Oswego, and Watertown are crowded with community members seeking assistance from our Patient Navigators, to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Health Care provisions. This new ACR Health service has been a remarkable eye opener for me: people coming in angry with all kinds of negative beliefs and feelings about the new law (due to the ‘howl’ factor), leaving with smiles, hugs, tears, and gratitude. I do not exaggerate, even a little bit… It is a daily affirmation of a desperate need and of one very positive solution we’re privileged to be a part of facilitating.
I haven’t given the Pope’s theologies or doctrinal positions a good going over, and I’m sure I would take issue with some, if not many of them, but I do champion his speaking up and out for economic justice – for suggesting the ‘G’ word as a scandal that wounds millions on a daily basis. Greed: the 5 letter word no one seems to want to say, much less consider. I don’t care your religious persuasion or even if you have one, the globe needs a voice for the ‘poor getting poorer’ and right now Francis stands as a conscience and a challenge in the face of overwhelming avarice that leaves so many without even the basics of a dignified life.
Rumor has it Francis is not afraid to stroll, incognito, the streets of Rome after a long day of being Pope. I like to imagine him passing by clubs with long lines of well-heeled folks, him harkening back to his bouncer days. I like to think of all those ‘nots’ he’d be welcoming, and all those ‘haves’ he’d be leaving howling at the door: too toxic to let in and spoil the party; I like to think he’d be roughing up a few and unceremoniously throwing them to the curb: a bit of their own medicine… Strictly my need/fantasy, I know. He’d be nicer… being Pope and all… But I can’t believe it wouldn’t cross his mind… and that not only gives me pleasure but hope for the Pope and his message and the globe.
Happy New Year

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AIDS and Beyond: reflections on a namechange

We are currently thigh high in all manner of expansion: physical plant, new programs and lines of business, an expanded client base, and a name change (note the new masthead). “Upheaval” might best describe our current reality… and it’s all good…
Participating in the state-wide Health Home model (all about ‘Medicaid redesign’), accounts for the bulk of activity and change.
What it boils down to is, while we will continue, as a priority, to provide comprehensive services to people living with HIV/AIDS, we will be adding Medicaid eligible individuals with other chronic disease conditions to our care management. Over 30 years we’ve become expert in navigating all the obstacles someone with a life threatening condition lives with: what we have done well for our HIV clients all these years, we will be offering other struggling individuals who have never had these kinds of services and assistance.
To be completely transparent, we had no choice in the matter if we wanted to continue serving people living with HIV/AIDS: it was “Grow and change or die”. We went with the, let’s live with this new reality and all its uncertainty – just like our HIV clients have taught us through their example – and do a bang up job for more people in need.
To that end (and there is a lot more I could and will say at a later time about the whole Health Home initiative), we are now doing business as, ACR Health: Access Care and Resources for Health. So while legally we will remain AIDS Community Resources, Inc., we will operate simply as ACR Health.
In my soon-to-be 24 years as Executive Director, this will be the agency’s 3rd name. In the earlier days, as the disease showed no signs of abating, our name changed from its original short-term sounding, “AIDS Task Force”, to the more established reality of a, “Community Resource”, and now as HIV/AIDS, with proper diagnosis and treatment, is being viewed as more chronic than fatal, ACR is about ‘Health’ and wellness and no longer just disease management. It’s time that our name reflects this new reality.
Our current HIV+ clients are very happy with the new name; prevention clients (those at high risk of HIV, STDs, and Hepatitis C), who come here for our various behavior change initiatives, are happy with the change; staff are happy with the name change – all acknowledging the powerful stigma that an “AIDS” label continues to wield, keeping infected and at risk people from seeking help – from entering our doors. Why stigma continues to thrive is another whole reflection.
Health care in our country is changing dramatically, and I believe for the good. ACR intends to be a major player, especially on behalf of those HIV positive individuals we have always served. Making room to help others looking to navigate their way to improved health is a challenge we’re more than ready to accept, and a challenge I know those we have lost to AIDS over our history would celebrate. Their legacy lives on as the foundation of who we are and who we serve.
It’s all good…

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A tribute to Kathy Goldfarb-Findling

A lesson learned later in life: If you find yourself on the fence, it’s never a mistake to go to a funeral – ever; it is however, often a mistake to excuse yourself from one… You can take this to the bank.  How many times have I passed on a funeral because I felt: too busy, didn’t really know the family, forgot and wasn’t dressed appropriately, had a meeting scheduled, a hectic day ahead, etc. etc.? Lame even at the moment, and I knew it.

I understand ‘not all funerals are equal’ relative to my sense of loss, intimacy with the bereaved, time and distance realities… I’m talking here about funerals within reach and primarily funerals of acquaintances: nodding neighbors, professional contacts, family members of relatives and co-workers, etc.: funerals I don’t ‘have’ to attend.  

I just came from the funeral of , a woman intimately involved in the Central New York professional philanthropic community for many years, and someone who has always kept an eye on AIDS Community Resources – especially our two primary youth initiatives, the Teen AIDS Task Force and The Q Center.

Kathy was not someone I saw often or knew well. She was, however, someone I liked immediately and someone I always felt like I knew well, if that makes sense…? Cathy was the only foundation representative in my entire professional career that sought us out and announced upon her first visit: “We haven’t ever given you any money and it’s time to remedy that!” (I will never be talked out of believing in angels!). That visit resulted in us hosting 3 African teens, all HIV/AIDS educators, and their chaperones, from Zimbabwe, for an amazing/inspiring/sobering week-long 9 county experience culminating in a regional youth summit at the State Fairgrounds: a week and an event that changed lives on two continents. The ripple effects continue to this day…

    Years later as we were looking to establish the Q Center, a safe space for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning youth, and Cathy had risen to a position of leadership at the Gifford Foundation, I called and asked for a meeting. On the day of my appointment, as I sat with one of her staff, Cathy stuck her head into the meeting room and declared: “Give him what he’s asking for – we’re going to fund them…!” On she went and so they did..!  We now have a library and group meeting room, both full of color, furnished courtesy of Gifford and Cathy’s commitment to the misrepresented and marginalized in our community.  

        All the reflections shared at Cathy’s funeral solidly resonated with my limited experience of her. She was the real deal with intimates and acquaintances: one face, one heart, one vision of how to be in the world, no matter who she interacted with.

   I didn’t have to go to Cathy’s funeral, and I did forget, as I dressed that morning in ‘casual Friday’ attire. I did have a hectic schedule, and I didn’t know the family. I went. I’ve learned (mostly…), and Cathy left me with yet one more bequest: images of promise and possibility, of delight in doing good with good humor, of trusting intuition and common sense, of spontaneous generosity towards all. A mistake dodged and a blessing bestowed: I’ll never be talked out of attending a funeral or believing in angels.  Image

 Kathy Goldfarb-Findling is second from left in front row of this 2001 photo.  She stands alongside three teens from Zimbabwe.

 

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Inspirations

Inspirations

January 2013

 

I am continually exposed to inspiration because of my position, and every now and then I manage to let it take hold… I write this in the season of all manner of heightened emotions, and I thank the ‘Powers that Be’ that ‘inspiration’ is one of them:

-         I walk through the reception area and one of our clients stops me to say how much fun the Nutrition Team has made their group sessions, and how she has changed her eating habits and feeling better because of it…  

-         A long absent volunteer pauses in the middle of emptying the trash to share the fact of his recent incarceration and how he’s …”back on track now, and so happy to be back here with you guys!”

-         I’m stopped in the parking lot and asked for help by a woman who seems a bit flustered and is double parked: she is bringing in armloads of gifts, as one of our Holiday Angels, “My kids are all grown and doing fine now,  so it’s great to be able to shop for someone in need!” She gives me a hug and thanks me.

-         A ‘higher end’ restaurant opens for lunch just to accommodate our 80 + staff for a holiday luncheon and offers us a deal we couldn’t match at McDonalds: “We love what you guys do!”

-         A local (previously unknown to the agency) woman from the community sees my photo and comes into the office with the portrait she has painted of me – and it’s really good! She then goes on to say that she would like take photos and do the same for any clients, staff, or volunteers: “My way of giving”. She’s already begun. She will take no money – even for supplies.

-         Two long time volunteers and donors ( a couple) notify us that in 2013 they want to double what they already give on a monthly basis –  to be split between ACR’s general needs and the Q Center: “how impressed….with the outstanding work you are doing….and the many clients the agency serves…”

-         A Facebook notice goes out about our Nutrition Programs’ need for an additional freezer, and within seconds (I do not exaggerate) there is a response and the freezer is delivered the next day…

It goes on… and I am left, ‘balanced’ in a way that I could not foresee – or talk myself into…

     In the face of recent stunning tragedy and senseless loss (those small radiant faces will not leave me) when the world seems so very out of balance,  I witness good every day; I witness generosity every day; I witness transformation every day; I witness self sacrifice and caring that is second nature to more people than I can count. I need no convincing, that evil doesn’t triumph; It’s constant reminding I seem to need, and mercifully it’s pressed upon me daily.

      To Inspire: to breathe; to have an animating effect upon; to stimulate or impel towards some creative effort; to infuse life into… If I could steal a turn of phrase, “Be the inspiration you want to see in the world”: my New Year’s wish for us all.

 

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Nutrition and AIDS Health

As I write, the Summer Olympics are about to begin and the International AIDS Conference in Washington DC is in full swing: hate missing it (both actually!). Circumstances kept me home-based, but other ACR staff are attending the Conference to soak up as much as possible from this rare opportunity… I’ll save any reflections for next month.
In the mean-time there has been no shortage of activity on the ‘home-front’. In a matter of days we are initiating a first time 14 county-wide Nutrition Program, and, as of yesterday, we were notified that a long past request to expanded our Housing Initiatives had been (unexpectedly!) approved, adding an emergency funding component that can make all the difference in the lives of the many we serve who have had a troubled housing history (often of their own making..), and who are now putting their lives back together – or together for the first time….
Sustenance and shelter: nutritious food and safe/secure housing – the foundations of health, both mental and physical for all of us, but not the experience of so many who come through our doors. For someone like me, who has never worried about or lacked either, I am routinely stunned, saddened, and humbled by how much I have always taken for granted: never a worry about a roof over my head or three squares.
To listen to the rhetoric of the well-heeled politicians and loud mouth pundits who celebrate corporate welfare (can you spell “greed”?) while they denigrate the expansion of health care, the food-stamp program, ADAP (AIDS Drug Assistance Program), housing subsidies, and so on, leaves me on slow boil: “Out of touch”, doesn’t come close to describing them. Such mean spiritedness is stunning… I know, yet again, I digress…. It’s the heat.
One of the great pleasures of our new Nutrition Program is the opportunity to work more closely with the Food Bank of CNY, a remarkable operation doing remarkable good, not just in distributing food, but in the continued cultivation of diverse and healthy choices: an “In touch” agency if ever there was one. I love being in their company.
So, no slow down this summer: new programs require all manner of activity: hiring, renting new space, moving offices, purchasing equipment, advertising, staff training, client recruitment, community partnerships, etc. etc. Not exactly high jumping but clearly a win for the many living in poverty we serve who understand, with no explanation needed, that a secure food source and dependable shelter are spring boards to improved health and a long and productive life.
I’ll carry that torch any day… Hope you’re having a great summer!

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AIDS Walk/Run $2,000,000

June 2012

I have to comment about the 20th Anniversary of our Onondaga
County-based AIDS Walk/Run: a milestone on multiple levels. Way back when, this event was the agency’s ‘first ever’ big fundraiser, and we had no idea what to expect; we just knew we had to raise money to support our newly established youth initiative, the Teen AIDS Task Force (TATF) program, and a Walk seemed like a good idea. Little did we know… Being fairly naïve helped get us in too deep to back out – which was a good thing.
Just to multiply the anxiety, a few weeks prior to the event, officials from the local park where the Walk was to be held, called to let us know, because of flooding problems, we were being, ‘booted’: weather rules here in CNY… Can you say ‘scramble’? I’ll spare you the frantic details, but nature’s caprice led us to contact Beaver Lake Nature Center, and the rest, as they say, is history: oh happy flooding!
The ever-beautiful Beaver Lake Nature Center has proven to be a twenty year boon on every level: participants love the space and the space seems to love us. Over the twenty years, $2,000,000 (!) has been raised by this event, sustaining and growing the twenty years of our youth-targeted services. These events are hard work, both logistically as well as the raising money part (getting harder and harder during these tough economic times), but we’re proud of doing our part to locally fund programs, especially given the political whims and ideologies of government support.
The Walk/Run has always a great time – always. Regardless of the weather (rained this year, but no flooding!) The energy (along with the music) pulses in the very diverse crowd that gathers – for very diverse reasons: some runners come just to run and have no particular connection to ACR or AIDS: they like to run; many come to memorialize those they have lost: family and friends often ‘in uniform’ (photo of their deceased loved one on their T shirt), keeping the memory alive and finding purpose in being part of the solution; a lot of youth attend – many TATF members – excited to be together and part of a larger movement – the very youth this event supports; many working in the health care field form teams and walk in solidarity with their patients – making a huge impact on the growing numbers, of people living with HIV who participate, manifesting a very different ‘face of AIDS from 20 years ago’ when it all began…
I have had the privilege of attending every one of these events. My ‘job’ is easy there. Outside of a couple media interviews and a brief welcome, I get to step back and view this grand spectacle of hope, energy, and movement. I get to think back 20 years to the uncertainty, anxiety, and loss that were the back-round against which we held the inaugural Walk. I have the rare visceral experience of connectedness – of being part of a multitude literally moving forward – of change having happened and currently happening… To think, I have a flood to thank for much of it… Gotta love it!

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