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Sharing, Caring and Touching Lives -- Atlanta AIDS Education Organization
"Positive PEACHES"

October 2000

It is my pleasure to spotlight a wonderful organization called, Positive PEACHES, Inc. The mission of Positive PEACHES, Inc. is to reduce the number of cases of HIV/AIDS by implementing educational strategies for the prevention of HIV/AIDS, and to educate those who are HIV positive about treatment approaches and other ways to enhance their quality of life.

The driving force behind Positive PEACHES, Inc. is the commitment of two co-founders, Mary Lester and Susan Wheeler. They have a combined 23 years of experience providing AIDS education programs to many diverse groups in and out of the Metro Atlanta area. Ms. Lester provided AIDS education statewide for deaf and hard of hearing groups from 1986 to 1996 for Georgia's Department of Human Resources, Division of Rehabilitation Services. In 1996 she joined the DeKalb County Board of Health where she is currently the HIV/AIDS coordinator. She facilitates the DeKalb HIV forum and serves on the board of Mothers' Voices. Under her leadership, these groups conducted programs for middle and high school students, senior citizens, faith institutions and many other groups. Mary is an affected mother and grandmother. Her son Tim lived with AIDS for over 10 years before passing away in 1996. She has a grandson in Texas who is living with HIV. Mary began facilitating a support group for infected and affected adults in 1994, which is now called Mary's Kids.

In 1990, Susan received an HIV diagnosis while she was pregnant with twins. She later gave birth to twin girls who were also infected and they subsequently died from the disease. It is because of Susan's personal experiences that she became active in the fight against AIDS. She spends her time talking with groups, churches and medical professionals about her experiences living with HIV. She also started working with others who were HIV positive, educating them about their disease, so they could learn self-advocacy skills.

Mary and Susan met while participating in an AIDS awareness program for youth in 1995. They realized they had a lot in common, and in 1999, they founded Positive PEACHES, Inc. They were subsequently one of only 10 teams selected out of hundreds to attend a seven-day training for the HIV University conducted by W.O.R.L.D. (Oakland, CA) and World Health Direct (New York, NY). They are the first and only team from Georgia to be selected to receive this training and to bring HIV University back to their communities. To date, they have successfully completed one HIY University and have received funding for a second HIV University that is currently being implemented.

The first HIV University was a big success, and after weeks and weeks of hard work and spirited determination, the first students of HIV University have completed their program and received their diplomas. There were eight women completing the University; seven of those received diplomas and one a certificate of completion. They also had a session on advocacy that was provided by Terri Wilder, LMSW, AIDS Survival Project Operation: Survive! Program Manager. Mary stated, "I have never seen women work so hard and be so determined to complete a program. These women gave up every Saturday to attend classes from 10:00 - 3:00. They asked questions, they made comments, they took notes and . . . they learned."

The women learned tips on how to live longer, healthier, more productive lives. They learned how to give HIV the space it needed, but that it did not have to consume their every thought and action. They learned how to deal with stress and family issues, where to find the resources they need, about medications and side effects and alternative treatments. They learned the importance of good nutrition and practicing safe sex, they made new lifetime friends, and leaned how to love and respect themselves. Some of these women had never graduated from high school, and when they entered the room adorned in their black caps and gowns, gold banners across their chests, and their shoulders back and heads held high, "We all cried," says Ms. Lester. "It was so beautiful. They were filled with such pride in what they had accomplished, it was clear to everyone in the room that these women were going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future."

The first graduation was held at the Radisson hotel on LaVista, and it will be remembered as just fabulous. They had a beautifully decorated room and a formal graduation, which included the ladies marching in to Pomp and Circumstance. They had a wonderful dinner and they even had music and dancing to follow. They felt it was an honor to have been a part of the first ever HIV University program in Georgia, and hope it will only be the start of many more to come. Mary and Susan want all the women to know they say, "Way to go, ladies!"

Positive PEACHES, Inc. has a choice group of board members, they are President Susan Wheeler, Vice President Mary Lester, and the following other board members:

  • Secretary Linda Messina who is a single mother, part of the support group "Mary's Kids" and a recent graduate of the HIV University. Linda is a peer counselor for the Rural Women's Health Project through the University of South Carolina. She also does public speaking for Positive PEACHES, Inc.
  • Treasurer Richard Trollinger has tirelessly lent his creative hand to developing materials for HIV University. He has lived with HIV for seven years and lost his partner this year to AIDS. He is also part of the support group "Mary's Kids" and does public speaking for Positive PEACHES, Inc. He has lost many friends and believes in this program because he sees that the educational needs among HIV-positive women are not being met.
  • Cathelene Perry recently graduated from HIV University. She serves on the board and is committed to HIV University because of the impact it has made on her life. Cathelene lost her husband to AIDS in 1994. She is 53 years young and since her involvement with the HIV University, she has learned to share her story with others. She has also become an interviewer for a research project with the University of South Carolina, recruiting HIV-positive women into a peer counseling study.
  • Cydney T. Parker, Ph.D. is board certified in areas of child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. Dr. Parker is a single mother and therefore understands many of the difficulties the students face. As an African-American woman, she is committed to reaching out to others in her community.
  • Linda Moneyham, Ph.D. has been involved in ongoing research projects concerning HIV-positive women for eight years. Dr. Moneyham is a nurse researcher with expertise in peer-based interventions, serves as advisor to the program staff and will oversee the data analysis for the program evaluation. She is currently overseeing a peer counseling project for HIV-positive Women in Rural Areas, which is one of the programs for which she has received funding through grants from the National Institute of Health and the University of South Carolina.

    Since its inception, Positive PEACHES, Inc. has been committed to addressing the needs of women with HIV disease. Because of the context in which they live, women with HIV disease are at particular risk for poor outcomes. For example, women with HIV disease are more likely than their male counterparts to experience depression, lack disease management skills, and have poor quality of life. A number of factors contribute to the poor outcomes for women. Women with HIV/AIDS are exposed to numerous stressors due to the circumstances under which they live. The majority of infected women are poor, of minority status, and single heads of households with young dependent children, factors making them socially and economically disadvantaged and lacking the resources to effectively manage the disease. They are frequently not able to access services and are forced to rely on inadequate or intermittent services that do not meet their needs. In addition, they may perceive their disease as having a low priority relative to their other problems.

    For information you may contact Positive PEACHES, Inc. at

    Post Office Box 298
    Conyers, GA 30012.

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This article was provided by AIDS Survival Project. It is a part of the publication Survival News.
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