The 12 of us were making the last leg of our long and exhausting drive to Fort Worth, Texas, as part of Alternative Spring Break. We were going to spend our time at Samaritan House, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and care to individuals and families living with HIV/AIDS and other special needs.
I did not save anyone. I didn’t expect to. We entered the community with anticipation and anxiety, ready to experience a new environment, hear new stories and do some good old-fashioned manual labor. And we did. But I would like to think that there is a reason why year after year, they continue to invite students from the University back. To be honest, yes — our five days of physical work most likely didn’t have any grand effect on Samaritan House or the community. To them we may have been a passing kiss, a short, sweet presence commonplace in an environment that attracts so much service and assistance from the community. But to us, or at least me, the people at the Samaritan House offered a window into a stigmatized group of society who is often marginalized, ignored and even avoided. They’re those who are living with HIV/AIDS.
Phrasing was the first lesson. He or she is not an “HIV-positive person” or “a person infected by HIV.” They are living with HIV/AIDS. First and foremost, despite what society misconstrues, this community of people do, in fact, have lives that are often quite fulfilling and are comprised of employment, families and close relationships. But even more importantly, an individual living with HIV/AIDS doesn’t allow it to envelop or define their entire lives. Hearing the stories of the residents of Samaritan House, their illness was merely one of the many hardships faced, and like all the other hardships, they were merely facts to live with, not be defined by. This is becoming more and more a reality as changes in medical technology have transformed HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable chronic illness.
I remember coming home and hearing one of my friends make a seemingly “harmless” joke regarding contracting HIV by sharing a spoon. I went off. To be fair, my verbal backlash was unnecessarily mean. I know there was no malicious intent, and it very well could have been a joke I would have made a few months prior. There was the second lesson: stigma. Most don’t consciously recognize the perpetuated stigma over HIV/AIDS via nonchalant comments or “harmless” jokes.
As it is with many stereotypes, the root of this one is a lack of accurate information. According to aids.gov, HIV can only be transmitted through sexual contact, pregnancy/childbirth, drug injection, occupational exposure or organ transplant. It cannot be contracted through physical contact like hugging, a handshake or a kiss. Neither I nor anyone else in my group ever felt like our safety was at risk at any point. On the contrary, we felt welcomed and very comfortable in their community. Their homes and communal spaces were open to us and we truly had the opportunity to witness the very human faces behind the illness that social stigma unjustly distorts.
It’s peculiar to think that I had to travel 1,160 miles into the heart of Texas to gain insight into a global issue that affects us in our very own backyard. But sometimes it takes a new environment for people to see an issue in a fresh, eye-opening context.
Edvinas Berzanskis is an LSA sophomore.