We exist to serve our clients and share their stories. Each of the individuals we meet through HIV Community link has a compelling story that deserves to be told, and we’d like to share a few. Our clients and volunteers are the people who make HIV Community Link possible and better every day.
“It feels really good to give back”
Albert was born in a family of six children. He lived in Montreal, completed a degree in Interior Design and studied at McGill and Concordia. He was 25 years old when he had some lymph nodes removed from his neck because the doctors thought he had cancer. As it turned out, Albert was HIV positive. It was the mid 80’s and his family was dealing with a lot at the time, so Albert decided not to tell his parents and siblings. “When I got my diagnosis after three months of waiting for the results, they put me in front of the camera, because they wanted to see people’s reaction to the news. I just wanted to know, so I agreed,” says Albert.
The fear that people would find out would follow Albert for decades. He started volunteering at an AIDS hospice in Montreal, which was opened by two women who offered their home for free, as there was no government support for people at that time. There were four people in the hospice, and Albert wanted to know more about HIV. “I thank my survival on those people. I saw them going through horrible treatments. I saw them as guinea pigs and I saw them getting ten times the amount of medication they are giving to people now,” he recalls.
During those years of fear and hiding his status, Albert fell in love. “My partner was and still is HIV negative. He knew about my status. I told him about three weeks into our relationship, and he told me he needed a couple of days to think. He came back and said ‘Let’s take it one day at a time,’’ Albert remembers, adding that they separated when he was 40 years old.
But he still didn’t disclose his HIV status to others. “I wouldn’t tell my dentist because I was in fear he wouldn’t see me anymore. One time, I had to see a doctor in Montreal and the doctor took sexual advantage of me. I think that was because I was HIV positive and I was in fear of not being able to get medical help. I’ve never talked about it. I never said anything, but I want to now. I think people should know that that we were not respected.”
Albert moved to Vancouver and later to Calgary. Ten years after his HIV diagnosis, he became ill with lymphoma. “That was kind of ironic. You think you have something, but you don’t, and then you actually do ten years later. The doctors explained that my immune system had to work extremely hard to keep me alive. Within three months of taking the medication, I was undetectable.”
Albert is now 56 and a talented artist. He started painting and drawing after he was diagnosed with cancer. The side effects from medication and a severe reaction to radiation left him dealing with long-term chronic pain and mobility issues, so painting is somewhat difficult and takes time. Albert donates art to charities and has donated beautiful pieces of art to Splash of Red, a fundraiser in support of HIV Community Link, for the last couple of years.
He takes care of his sick mom and volunteers in the Peer Support program at HIV Community Link as a Peer Navigator. ”I might struggle with health issues and chronic pain and stigma, but there are people out there struggling with drug addiction, abusive relationships and HIV. It was good to open my mind and not be judgmental. They are still people and they need help.”
Albert encourages everybody to support the work of HIV Community Link. “I’m grateful to be part of this organization. It feels really good to give back; I’m hoping I can reach somebody that needs help,”
The first thing you realize when you talk to Cheryl is that she adores her kids. “I was born here in Calgary and raised here, been here all my life. I have three wonderful kids, but I am not allowed to see them. The court feels that, because I am a transgender woman, it would cause psychological damage to them,” Cheryl tells me with a soft and sad voice. She is tall and timid, and really happy she has a safe place to come to almost every day.
Cheryl has been a Shift client for almost three years. “I had a severe depression and I ended up being suicidal. After my third attempt, they put me in the hospital and I was there for four months. When I got out, I had nothing; my breastplates were gone, my belongings were gone, everything was gone; so I got out of the hospital and I was living on the street. To be precise, I was living in my van and I was working the stroll in Forest Lawn,” says Cheryl. It was then that somebody gave her a card for Shift.
The first time Cheryl came out as a transgender woman, living her life as a female was 15 years ago. She was taking hormones and getting ready for surgery, when she hooked up with a woman she met at a party. A couple of weeks later, the woman showed up at Cheryl’s door, informing her that she was pregnant. Recognizing she was about to become a parent, Cheryl realized that she had to choose between either pursue her dream as a woman or being part of her child’s life. “I wasn’t allowed both, so I picked my child,” says Cheryl. She had to put everything on hold. Years later, in consultation with her psychiatrist, she decided to continue her pursuit of her real identity and re-embarked on her journey of transition into life as a woman.
Twelve years had passed with her playing the role of being a man. And the transition hasn’t been easy. “Being a transgender woman, I don’t fit in with the, I guess you want to call them the ‘straight crowd’ and I don’t fit in with the gay, lesbian or bisexual crowd, so kind of just hover in the centre.”, which is why the safe and nonjudgemental support of the Shift program means so much to her.
When Cheryl got the Shift card, she needed a couple of weeks to get in touch with the agency. “The support counsellor here was very understanding and she didn’t condemn me or anything for what I was doing. I told her I had no money so I’m doing what I have to do to at least eat. Next thing I knew, there was a lady from the Canadian Mental Health Association that came in, and the Shift counsellor asked me if I would please talk to her. So I sat down and we talked, and all of a sudden I had a place to live. When I moved in, I owned nothing. The only thing I had was two short dresses. That was all I owned, and I talked with the Shift counsellor some more and next thing I know she called an agency; they show up and I got all of these clothes, and I just felt wonderful that I had someone there that actually cared,” adds Cheryl.
“I honestly don’t know. If it wasn’t for that lady from Shift walking up to me and giving me that card, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Honestly it’s been nothing but support and they help me with even the littlest things, like in wintertime when you don’t have a jacket. When I don’t have anything to eat, they give me food, and the nicest thing about all of it is they don’t condemn me. I tell them that sometimes money is so tight, I have to go back out and work, and they don’t condemn me for it, they just tell me “you have to be safe,” says the tall woman with the softest voice. She adds that it’s wonderful to have an organization that supports her.
Cheryl doesn’t hesitate when asked if she has a message for the other transgender people out there. “Don’t give up, don’t give up, as hard as it is, as lonely as it is, you can come to a place like Shift and you have someone that will stand beside you and will help you and me.”
Leah has been volunteering with HIV Community Link for over a year. She is 33 years old and she is a registered nurse. “I took a special interest in sexual health. I was pointed towards HIV Community Link and I thought I would enjoy it, and I have. I have worked in sexual transmitted infections in Sydney, Australia, and was a part of a research study on rapid testing. HIV has its share of stigma and I wanted to continue my work to break down the stigma. Having given a few HIV diagnoses myself, I felt really moved by doing this work,” says Leah describing her connection with the cause.
“I really enjoy working with the organization. I’ve made some good connections with the staff there, I feel recognized as a volunteer, and it’s definitely something I want to continue doing. I would strongly encourage people to volunteer with agencies that they feel are doing something good. It brings a lot of positivity in my life, I’ve met really wonderful people and it’s been a lovely experience. It’s nice to just give back when you know you can.”
Ann found out she was HIV positive in 2011. It took years to figure out what was wrong, because she wasn’t considered to be in a high risk group. A couple of months later, she came to HIV Community Link. “When I got here I was treated very well, there was not judgement, no stigma”, says Ann. Before living on the street, Ann had worked in an office for years. ”I was on the street from 2004 to 2008. I can understand now how it happens. It’s very easy. They say one paycheck away is what a lot of people are at right now from living on the street,” says Ann, who is happy she doesn’t have to be worried about her basic needs anymore. She adds that HIV Community Link helped her with her Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) and housing applications. But the most important part, she says, is “coming and meeting people, people that you didn’t have to be afraid to say you are HIV positive. I use the many services offered at HIV Community Link for people living with HIV including counselling, massage, acupuncture, food hampers, Friday lunches, laundry machines and attending conferences. This helps people to live with their condition and cope with it,” shares Ann, adding that it’s really important to educate health professionals so everybody gets tested, not just those who are considered to be at a greater risk. “HIV is everyone’s disease. Please help in the education, research, and prevention of HIV,” Ann concludes.
Gerald has been actively volunteering with our organization for over three years, helping out in several capacities. He is always looking for ways to get involved and help our organization. Gerald frequently supports at our Volunteer Activity Nights, has been a great contribution to our annual AIDS Walk, casinos and our annual Splash of Red event.
He is a cherished friend in our office with staff and clients. “I just like to step in whenever and wherever I am needed. I just like to help out as it does also give me a better understanding and workable knowledge of helping other people that need support”, says Gerald. Thank you, Gerald!
Marie is enrolled in Business Administration. She has been working in the sex industry for three years. “I started doing sex work when I was 18. It’s completely my choice. It’s your body, you should be able to do what you want with it, and you should have the choice to be who you want to be,” shares Marie, adding that she found out about Shift when she first started working with an escort agency. She says it felt really good to receive non-judgmental support from Shift. “I get to discuss safety measures; I get to be up-to-date on different health things, on contraception and STIs. Shift really helps me think clearly, makes sure I make good choices and that I keep my wellbeing. It’s good to be able to talk to someone about the things I’m going through and have someone understand”. Marie wants to start her own escort agency and mentor other women who are starting sex work. She thinks that agencies like HIV Community Link and programs like Shift should be a “requirement” so that the community can support the safety and inclusion of sex workers. “I feel like they do such a big I want to say benefit, to people in the sex industry because the chance to really go over things and get a neutral point of view helps so much”.