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Hour of Destiny

By Loreen Willenberg

July 14, 2008

Sacramento, California

There are rare times in life when all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. The launch of this Blog occurs at such a moment for me, and I am grateful to Bonnie Goldman and The Body for inviting me to share it with you.

As an HIV-positive woman in her mid-fifties, I hope to encourage others to strive toward their dreams, whatever those may be. I know that dreams do come true, because I am living mine!

Three years ago, I resolved to dedicate the rest of my natural life to HIV/AIDS advocacy through an interesting chain of events. As is true for all of us, HIV or not, there are many parts that comprise the whole, and through this blog I will eventually share the back story that lead me to this decision. Today, however, it must suffice to say that I have been walking this path since my diagnosis in July of 1992. There have been many players, situations and places that have contributed to the journey and inspired my arrival to that rare 'hour of destiny'.

Since the fall of 2004, my volunteer efforts toward HIV/AIDS advocacy have become the focal point of my life. As 2005 came and went and early spring of 2006 arrived, the questions inside my head were "How will you transition from your twenty-two year career as a landscape designer into paid advocacy work?" and "Is it even possible to make a living wage in the field of HIV and AIDS during this time of funding cuts?" After all I haven't got a degree in either public health or social work. It was during these times that I would recall my Mom saying "Where there's a will, there's a way…" and kept putting one foot in front of the other.

Four short months ago, with the financial support from my siblings, I moved to Sacramento. I brought my household belongings, Keena, (my fourteen year-old cat) and a big dream. I believed I would find employment in the nonprofit sector with an agency providing services to the HIV/AIDS community. In my minds-eye, I envisioned a job that would utilize my artistic background, administrative skills, love of people and nature, commitment to clinical research, history of volunteerism, and my knowledge about HIV and AIDS.

I fanned out resumes everywhere. I attended meeting after meeting to reconnect with colleagues on the Planning Council. I sent emails to my network. I contacted just about every agency in town and answered job postings by those agencies from craigslist, monster and career-builders. When I started my new phone service, I made lots of calls. Looking for work became a full-time job!

Two months passed, yet I kept the faith. Just when I was starting to think I should place my own ad on craigslist for landscape consulting services (a girl has got to eat, after all!), I received a return call from the facilitator of a women's support group to discuss an article I was writing for a local newsletter. During our conversation, I mentioned that I had grant-writing skills, did her agency need help with that process? She thought it might be a possibility, and promised to set up a meeting with her boss as soon as possible. Lo and behold, she followed up the call that very afternoon and invited me to the offices the next day!

The first thing I noticed in the Sunburst Projects office were two wall-sized collages hung on the waiting room walls. They showed hundreds of faces of children and staff members at a place called 'Camp Sunburst' with bronze plaques heralding the particular year of the camp. Both collages were impressive, colorful and alive, and I felt instantly happy to be where I was. I grabbed one of the brochures and learned that Sunburst provided services to children infected with HIV/AIDS and their families, with a special focus on women. I also learned that Camp Sunburst for kids would be twenty years old this year.

I was greeted by the facilitator, Mireya, with a big hug of welcome, who said Dr. Brooks was on her way in. I was sitting below one of those collages when I got my first glimpse of Geri, co-founder and executive director of Sunburst Projects, coming through the front door. A petite woman, sixtyish, with long flowing gray hair, she smiled as she reached out to shake my hand. Hugs with staff ensued, and soon I was ushered into a small office to the rear.

I offered Dr. Brooks my professional resume and HIV/AIDS advocacy biography to review. She looked up with a startled expression and said, "I need a professional landscaper at my home right now, I can't believe you walked in here today!" I was so surprised, all I remember saying was "Really?" as we three women laughed out loud.

Ah, synergy! It's a special event when it happens!

I told her I would be happy to assist her in my role as landscape contractor, and went on to explain the interesting transition I was trying to make. We proceeded to talk about grant writing opportunities and the background of Sunburst, and looked at the three-inch thick binder that represented the Ryan White grant proposal from their last application process. When she asked me if I thought I could help them write the next one, I said yes!

So, long story short, I did pull together her landscaping project, and worked alongside two talented men for the next three weeks to beautify Dr. Brooks' home. She made it possible for me to pay my bills and to get to know her in a way that I might not have otherwise. On the other hand, it gave her an opportunity to see me in my capacity as a project manager, coordinating a variety of tasks into a stream-lined whole, using the workers strengths and skills to achieve the desired result on her property, ordering supplies, deliveries, and tracking expenses and receipts.

What I did not know was her need to fill a vacancy for the position of Camp Director for the youth camps, and her concern over the lack of response to her job-posting on craigslist. All I know is that a bell went off in her head during our usual Monday update meeting, as I sat at her dining room table quantifying the number of bricks I needed to purchase that day for the project. She excused herself to make a call to her staff in Rohnert Park (headquarters for Sunburst Projects) to discuss her dilemma.

I will never forget her question as she rejoined me at the table, or the distinct 'click' of that puzzle piece locking into place -- as she looked at me and said, "So tell me, Loreen, have you ever worked with kids?"

To be continued ...

To contact Loreen, click here.

See Also
Life as an Elite Controller


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BLOG: Life as an Elite Controller

Loreen Willenberg

Loreen Willenberg
Photo credit: Bob Roehr

Loreen Willenberg, a resident of California, has survived HIV infection since 1992. She is part of a tiny group of people with HIV that scientists call "elite controllers." What is an elite controller? It's someone with HIV who has never had a detectable viral load, although they have never taken HIV meds. She also has an astonishingly high CD4 count and has never experienced any adverse health effects from HIV. Loreen considers it her responsibility as an elite controller to help other people with HIV, which is why she's currently participating in three clinical studies in which researchers are trying to understand how people like Loreen actually control the virus. In fact, she's created a new organization for people like her called the Zephyr Foundation.

More About Zephyr (PDF)

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