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HIV in the Classroom: Teaching in Response to the Terror of HIV's Early Years

Kimberley Hagen, Ed.D., Shares Stories From a Long Career in HIV Education

February 26, 2013

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How did you first get involved in HIV education?

I'm going to tell you a story about that: Back in the mid-'80s, I had just moved into a new apartment in Atlanta, and I was in the process of decorating my apartment. I was walking through town one day, and I saw the most perfect poster. It was gorgeous. It was a big heart. And I thought, "Oh, that's exactly what I need for my kitchen!"

I walked into the store and I said, "Can I buy a copy of that poster?" The man said, "No, I'm sorry, that's just an advertisement for a fundraiser. But, I'm sure if you attend the fundraiser, they'd be happy to sell you a copy of the poster." I decided, sure, why not. On the day of the fundraiser, I had nothing else going on.

I went up to the Fox Theatre, having never been to the Fox Theatre, not realizing that it was one of the most gloriously beautiful theatres in the country, and that people who go to events there are in long dresses, tuxedos, etc. [laughs] I slid into the lobby in the shorts and T-shirt I was wearing as I biked over there, and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible.

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I sat in the last row of the top balcony, but it was so far away from the stage that you could not actually see the stage from there. So I moved down and sat on the steps, which put me right next to a person sitting on the edge of that row, and that's when I found out what the fundraiser was all about. I was attending this without even knowing what it was; I just wanted a poster for my house! This fundraiser was for an organization called AID Atlanta, which existed to provide help, social support, help people locate care providers, anything, for people living with HIV.

I was mesmerized by this. I was also becoming very aware of the fellow sitting next to me who was very clearly moved by everything we were hearing and seeing. He began to kinda fall apart and cry, and what could I do? I started patting his knee then put my arm around his shoulder, telling him, "Oh, it's going to be OK." Finally he calmed down, and I said, "What's going on?" And he said, "I really shouldn't have come this evening. It's too much. I buried my 13th friend from AIDS today." And that rocked me back on my heels.

He said, "How many people have you lost to AIDS so far?" And I said, "Hmm. None. Yet." He looked a little puzzled and said, "Are you gay?" I said "No." And at that, he physically withdrew from me and looked at me extremely suspiciously and said, "Then what are you doing here?"

"I realized this is not just a terrible disease, this is a terrible disease that was isolating the people who were affected and infected."

In that moment, I realized this is not just a terrible disease, this is a terrible disease that was isolating the people who were affected and infected by it so much that a person who was attending a fundraiser could not even imagine why someone who was not personally affected by this would even want to come. It just hit me, like a bolt out of the blue. It's the mid-'80s, the epidemic is not widely known outside of the circles of those who are in fact affected by it.

I'm trying to stumble my way through the conversation, and I say, "Well, you hear what they're saying down there. This isn't just a gay disease. This affects everybody. I'm part of the everybody!" He saw right through me. He said, "Those are great words, but what are you actually doing?" And I'm thinking to myself, "Buying a poster for my house?"

It was a challenge. It was not even a thinly-veiled challenge. I left that fundraiser that evening and couldn't stop thinking about it. And that weekend, I walked down to AID Atlanta and volunteered. They were as surprised to see me as this young fella was! I may have, in fact, been the first straight woman who didn't have a brother with AIDS to walk in the door to volunteer. Once I was really aware, I just couldn't let it drop.

I had a perfectly excellent job working in management development, taking people out into the woods and doing team-building exercises, and I taught high-ropes courses and rock climbing and rappelling and I loved my job. But, somehow, this seemed more important, so I quit my job! I became an 80-hour-a-week volunteer over at AID Atlanta. I read my way through the entire treatment library, I volunteered for the Helpline, and I did everything I could to self-educate around HIV/AIDS.

In the process of that, I became a buddy. That was a big deal, because it was only after I started working there that it dawned on me that the person who had worked with me at a previous job at a bank, the next bank teller over, was probably gay. Now that I had developed my gaydar, I had realized, "Oh my goodness, I have lots of friends and family members who are gay, I just didn't know it!" And I started to obsess about these people who were a part of my life or had been a part of my life, and, for some reason I really focused on the fellow who had been the bank teller next to me. I thought, "OK, I'm going to make a deal with the universe. I'm going to become a buddy to a person living with AIDS so that out there somewhere, somebody like me will be a buddy for him!" We had completely lost touch, it had been years since we had been in the same place, and I didn't even know if he was still in Atlanta.

I went for my interview to see if I had what it took to be a buddy. I walk in the room, and there's my friend. He's the one who's going to give me the interview. I just stopped and stared at him. His first question was, "Why do you want to be a buddy?" I'm like, "Should I tell him the truth? Should I say, 'So that somebody will take care of you if you have HIV'?"

"I'm making a deal with the universe!" I said! Fortunately, he thought that was funny and kind and touching and I passed the interview.

My very first task when I was assigned my very first buddy was to go over and introduce myself. It turned out that it was a bad day for him. He was on the sofa, he didn't have the strength to get up; but he was raised right, he was raised in the South, just like me. So he said, "Why don't you go in the kitchen and fix us both some Cokes?" I got the cans of Coke out, thinking I'm so glad that the first task I was given with my buddy was within my skill set. I went to the cabinet to reach up for a glass and my hand got about an inch and a half form the glass and it froze. Just froze. I mean, I had been through all the training sessions by this time. I knew you could not get HIV from touching a glass or from drinking out of a glass, but it's like my hand didn't know that. My brain did, but the rest of my body didn't know it.

To this day, I sometimes think, following through with that action, forcing my hand to go that extra inch and a half, pour a Coke into a glass, take it into the next room and share a Coke with this man who was living with AIDS was probably the bravest thing I ever did, because despite what I knew, I was experiencing fear. And I said, "I will not let this fear stop me. I will do this even though I am afraid."

"But I've never forgotten what that [fear] felt like, and it moved me in the direction that I have taken for the rest of my career path."

I think that, as I was driving home after that was when I realized I wanted to be an AIDS educator, because I thought there must be people out there like me who are care providers and they're still doing it even though they're scared. I want to be one of those people who help them work through the fear. It wasn't long before I was grabbing the pizza and Coke out of his hands; I got past my fear almost right away. But I've never forgotten what that felt like, and it moved me in the direction that I have taken for the rest of my career path. It was a desire to help people understand that the difference between the risk that they felt like they were facing (huge) and the risk that they were taking (tiny) could be bridged.

That was when I moved full-speed into really trying to self-educate. There were no formal programs you could take.

So, there's the really really really long story. How did I get into this? I wanted a poster for my kitchen! [laughs] I tell the story sometimes to my graduate students, and I say to them "Sometimes you do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and that's OK. As long as you do the right thing."

Read other articles in this spotlight series.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Read all about Dr. Hagen's massive open online course, "AIDS," in part two of this conversation.

Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.


Copyright © 2013 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.
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See Also
HIV in the Classroom: A Spotlight Series
10 Black HIV/AIDS Advocates Who Are Making a Difference
More HIV Activist Profiles and Personal Accounts

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