L.A. Shanti Seminar Serves as a Roadmap to People Living with HIV
"The PLUS seminar is a doorway into the many services that are available to people in L.A. County," says Ric Parish, who has been the PLUS program's manager for four years. "It is the most collaborative effort in L.A. We have the best doctors, nurses, case managers, lawyers, benefit counselors, mental health experts and many top-quality presenters and caring volunteers."
The Emotional Component
The intensive PLUS seminar is conducted in a non-judgmental, compassionate and life-affirming environment where HIV is addressed on every level. During the seminar, participants are given the most up-to-date medical information and treatment options available from top doctors in the field.
By also addressing the emotional component of living with the disease, the PLUS weekend goes beyond the medical aspects of HIV. PLUS offers support groups, teaches life skills, and includes experiential exercises that show people how to feel and communicate in a non-sexual way.
"The experiential exercises can be a little bit scary at first, but once the ice is broken people come together and a real sense of community is created," says Parish. "Something as simple as a hug can be a precious commodity."
"This may be the first time since someone was diagnosed that they were touched or felt cared about," he continues. "In a PLUS seminar there are people from all walks of life who normally wouldn't cross paths. We all have our prejudices, but people find there is a big difference between perception and reality. It is amazing how the layers are peeled away like an onion and a common ground is found. It's more than just information. It's a spiritual awakening."
Strength Through Support
Support groups are held throughout the weekend to help people deal with the emotions that come up during the seminar. These support groups also give people a chance to talk about what they have learned during the seminar.
"You often hear people say they've never spoken about this anywhere else," says one volunteer who facilitates a support group. "This weekend gives people a safe environment to open up. We try to get people to bend and stretch themselves, but not to break. It's a full experience, where nothing is mandatory. This weekend is not all doom and gloom; it's a lot of work but by the end nobody wants to leave."
People discover that the support at the PLUS seminar doesn't end when the weekend does. L.A. Shanti volunteers follow up with each participant ten days and thirty days after the seminar. And people can get involved in one of the many on-going support groups that L.A. Shanti offers from groups for long-term survivors, to people who are asymptomatic, to a HIV-negative support group, just to name a few.
The PLUS program was founded in 1987, and became a part of L.A. Shanti in 1992.
"Back in 1987 there wasn't a whole lot for people to look forward to in terms of support or medical options," says Dr. Mark Katz, one of the co-founders of the PLUS program. "There weren't treatments. There was a lot of fear and discrimination. People didn't get tested because all it would mean is you were going to die. But the PLUS seminar was developed because there were things that we could do. We could share experiences, share strength and hope, and share strategies to deal with HIV, and six thousand people have."
Teaching Not To Pass It On
One of the goals of the PLUS weekend is to teach people not to pass on the virus. "We've experienced a feel-good era in the last four years because fewer people are dying from HIV and more people live with it today," says Katz. "This is a blessing and a curse. This has caused people to take more risks. The sense of urgency is over in the AIDS epidemic. We've seen a resurgence of newly infected young people because they think all they have to do is take a pill and they will be fine. So we are trying to educate people that this is not over."
According to one PLUS volunteer, the seminar is successful in teaching prevention for positives. "PLUS helps to dispel rumors and ignorance. People get a heads-up on updated information. They can come into this weekend feeling hopeless, and like they are the only one going through what they are dealing with, and they leave feeling empowered and then start more positive behavior. When you empower people they won't pass it on."
Going to the PLUS seminar also helps people make more informed choices when it comes to their medical treatment. The medical topics covered in the PLUS seminars include a medical overview of HIV, drug treatment options, complementary therapies, mental health and nutrition.
"It's a full package of information along with a lot of support," says Parish. "But we leave the choices up to each person. The goal of the weekend is to educate and empower people not tell people what choices they should make, or what drugs they should be on."
Dr. Eric Daar, who presented at a PLUS seminar in September, says that it's important that people advocate for the treatment they want. "As doctors we need to give patients all the information we have and tell them all we know and especially all we don't know. We need to let them be active in the decision-making and be informed about what to do, instead of making decisions for them. When patients are informed and make decisions with their doctors then any success or failure is a joint venture. That is the fairest way to approach treatment."
Finding Your Own Truth
People often ask Ric Parish why the PLUS seminar is so effective. "I've seen families who were shook to their foundation by an HIV diagnosis in the family, and the whole family goes through the weekend and comes out strong and will stay together. You can't buy that with money. People think there is a secret to the success Shanti has and especially with the PLUS weekend, but the secret is simply having a compassionate presence and saying you care and meaning it. It is the basis for the Shanti motto which means 'Inner Peace' in the ancient language of Sanskrit."
Parish himself is a testament to the positive impact the weekend can have on someone's life. He went through PLUS in 1992. "The PLUS seminar transformed my life. I was taking drugs and drinking, and basically I was unconsciously waiting to die. When a friend told me about the PLUS weekend I told him I was not going to go to some new age seminar where people are hugging and crying all day. And it took me six months to decide to go, but after I did my whole life changed. I cleaned up my act and I realized I was in denial about my life and I learned I could live instead of waiting to die. The PLUS seminar taught me it's all about finding your own truth."
The PLUS Menu
L.A. Shanti conducts about fourteen PLUS seminars a year. The seminars start Friday evening and run through Sunday. There are three versions of the seminar. Along with the PLUS seminar, there is also a Spanish version called "Vidas Positivas" and a women's version called, "Women for Positive Living."
Vidas Positivas is offered entirely in Spanish. It addresses issues relevant to traditional and cultural differences concerning HIV/AIDS and its impact on the Latino communities. The women's version is conducted in a "women sacred" environment. It offers information on gynecological, family, children's and other issues of major concern for HIV-positive women.
The next Vidas Positivas seminar will be held Saturday, October 28 and Sunday, October 29 in the West Hollywood area. The next PLUS weekend will be held in November. PLUS seminars are held all over L.A. County, including Long Beach, South Central L.A., and the San Fernando Valley so they can be as accessible as possible to everyone. Free transportation and child care are also available.
For more information on any of the three seminars call Ric Parish at (323) 962-8197, Ext. 320, or for Vidas Positivas call Laura Figueroa at (323) 962-8197, Ext. 320, visit www.lashanti.org or e-mail at email@example.com.
Jennifer Ludlow is a volunteer in AIDS Project Los Angeles' Publications Program. She wrote about the HIV University at Women Alive in the July edition of Positive Living.
This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).
This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.