ATHENS, GA — Even after over 25 years of service, AIDS Athens still struggles to crush the stigma that comes along with HIV and AIDS.
“Even though it has been years since the first AIDS virus was detected, prejudice and stigma still exist, especially in the south” said Olivia Long, executive director of AIDS Athens. “Many of our clients suffer from discrimination from landlords and even shelters, which can really take a toll on their sense of selves.”
AIDS Athens, a local organization that provides services for those who are HIV positive in the community, is determined to end that stigma. Along with a support network, the organization provides financial assistance, case management, clothing and housing to their clients. Since Long has become executive director seven years ago, she has managed to raise the AIDS Athens budget from $300,000 to $1.3 million according to the organization’s website. But even with the continued growth of the organization, AIDS Athens still struggles to help all of those affected by the virus in the Athens community.
“We know of at least 1000 people in the Athens area who are HIV positive, but we believe that is an underestimated number,” said Long. “The last census was taken in 2009 so the data is old and it doesn’t count people who have tested positive anonymously.”
With the growing number of those who test positive for HIV, volunteers are an essential part of the AIDS Athens program. Volunteers can work in the office or act as peer counselors for the victims of the disease. The main purpose of these volunteers is to boost the morale of the clients.
Mary Kelly is a volunteer in the AIDS Athens buddy program and an ongoing supporter of the organization. The buddy program connects an HIV negative person with an HIV positive person in order to help them create a lifelong friendship. Kelly believes this program is vital to the emotional happiness of HIV victims because it gives them an opportunity to separate themselves, at least temporarily, from the disease that has monopolized most of their lives.
“Victims of HIV already have to deal with the physical pain of the disease,” said Kelly. “As citizens of the Athens community, the least we can do is ease their emotional pain.”
For HIV and AIDS victims, something as simple as acceptance from others can help them achieve the inner peace they are searching for. In addition to the buddy program, AIDS Athens has recently joined up with Athens Land Trust to create the CARE Community Garden specifically for those affected by HIV and AIDS.
“The garden gives our clients a source of fresh produce, but I think that they really enjoy it because it gives them a place to socialize and unwind,” said Long.
The garden was constructed with the help of employees, interns, and volunteers from both AIDS Athens and Athens Land Trust. Jake Durrette, a UGA student, is one of the Athens Land Trust interns who helps build the CARE garden and now is a regular visitor.
“I go to the garden because I can relax there and focus on tending the plants,” Durrette said. “When you are growing your own food, it gives you a sense of accomplishment that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Through CARE, Durrette has become close with several of AIDS Athens clients and thinks they feel the same way about the garden. The mission of the garden is to empower the HIV and AIDS victims by introducing them to new things and giving them access to food they cannot afford. Because more than 80 percent of AIDS Athens clients are below the poverty line, free fruits and vegetables are a gift the clients highly appreciate.
“AIDS Athens wants to act as an extended family for our clients,” said Long. “Whether we are giving them food to eat or a friend to talk to, we just want to make sure those affected with HIV never feel abandoned."
Long hopes that AIDS Athens can continue to spread awareness to the Athens and UGA communities in the future. She believes that raising HIV awareness can not only prevent the spread of the virus but it can also help those already affected by reducing the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and AIDS. To find out more about virus prevention and AIDS Athens’ programs, visit the organization’s website at www.aidsathens.com.
“If there is one thing that I could tell the people of Athens, it would be to get tested if you haven’t been tested before,” Long said. “Every time you are sexually active, you should get tested.”