This year, AIDS Survival Project hosted its seventh annual Women's Healing Retreat. I have been attending these gatherings for several years and believe that it is one of the most gratifying events that our organization sponsors. Every year, I have simply shown up and been swept up in the day's activities, attending workshops and talking with other women about the trials and tribulations of living with HIV. This year, I was provided with a different opportunity: a chance to see how this event comes together. As a staff member and manager of our outreach program, I was invited to be a part of the planning committee for the retreat and it was quite an amazing learning experience.
Our first task was to come up with a theme or central focus for the activity. Based on the fact that there is only one plenary session where everyone comes together, we decided on a guided discussion concerning "down low" behavior. The phenomenon of the "down low" has gained a lot of attention recently with feature articles in both The New York Times and Washington Post newspapers. "Down low" behavior speaks to the issue of men who are straddling both sides of the sexual fence, by having sex with both men and women and much of it without adequate protection. This is becoming a very controversial subject, especially in communities of color where the statistics of HIV and AIDS infection rates are on the rise. Adding to the controversy, we decided to look at the topic from the perspective of someone who had actually lived a "down low" lifestyle and would be willing to share information with our participants as to what signs to look for.
Once our keynote speaker was secured and the remainder of the program was set in place, we moved on the most important item for the day: namely, who would be responsible for catering the food. Food is very important for the Women's Retreat. Not only do we provide a nourishing breakfast at the start of the day, we also provide a hot lunch and snacks throughout the day's activities. There is also the matter of day care responsibilities, which hinges upon how many children we have to care for, their ages and special needs. For the children, we have to have games, toys, cots for naps and lots of videos. This year, the retreat was held in our new facility. While this was a cause for celebration, it also presented a number of challenges that had to be overcome. In the building where the event was housed previously, everything was already set up for us, including areas for dining and child care. Fortunately, since we have access to our entire building and a close working relationship with the other building tenants (Positive Impact and AIDS Treatment Initiatives), we have the advantage of flexibility and managed to find space to accommodate all of the day's activities.
As we all know, the best-laid plans can often go astray and when I arrived at ASP an hour before the retreat was to commence, I was told that the keynote speaker had canceled on us the night before! In keeping with the teamwork effort that helps us stay on track and moves this organization forward, I offered to step in and facilitate a discussion with the participants. Since I am aware of its importance, I thought the ladies would be disappointed if we did not address the subject matter. The feedback that I got told me that the session was well-received and was informative as well as educational.
On the whole, the day went well for the 56 women in attendance. Not only were they treated to good food and information, they also had access to chair massages, BIAs (Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis, a painless procedure that measures the percentage of body fat), a health fair and the quintessential "goodie bags," a gift bag made up entirely from generous donations and a monumental effort on the part of volunteer Dan Dunable. This year's bags, along with a wide variety of raffle items, included everything from facials and vitamins to energy bars and free chiropractic care!
One of my specific responsibilities for the retreat was coordination of the health fair and while I must give a great big "Thank You!" to all of the participating organizations, I'd like to highlight a small group that made a big impact. Mother's Voices is a nationwide AIDS service organization with a ten-year history that comes from a different perspective. Coming from a peer educator's viewpoint, this group targets parents and helps them to talk to their children about sex, choices and HIV/AIDS. This is accomplished through a two-day training program that encourages parents to develop strategies around talking to their children about the risks of HIV and engaging in sexual activity. Accompanying the training is a booklet put out by the organization that directs parents to examine their own values and prejudice, emphasizing that discussions about HIV and sexuality are not a one-time event.
Along with their training effort, Mother's Voices also has a lengthy history of advocacy. Originally formed as a group of mothers with a personal concern or connection to the AIDS crisis, the agency became activist as the face of the epidemic changed. Although the emphasis of the organization has changed from advocacy to prevention in recent years, the advocacy effort has not been abandoned and in fact, they have instituted an "Advocacy for Parents" seminar in their training. In an article by Laura Engle for The Body Web site, she quotes Ed Galloway, Director of Community Affairs, saying, "they are enabling parents to talk not only with other parents and their own children, but to be able to go to their school boards, community boards and congressmen, letting them know that we still have HIV in this country." Mother's Voices also operates a nationwide e-mail action alert list. Their local address is 925 Main Street, Suite 207, Stone Mountain GA 30083. The phone number is (678) 476-3791.