One Woman’s Story:
Georgeannie talks about living with HIV, and how you—through TIHAN—make a difference to her
On the surface, Georgeannie is a wonderful, loving, dynamic and courageous woman. She relates well to all kinds of people, in part because of her diverse ethnicity--Latina, African-American, Native American, and Asian. Her family is very important to her. She is a mother and a grandmother and a caregiver. She is a veteran, having served our country in the armed services.
Georgeannie is also one of the growing number of women who are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
When you see her and speak with her, you see and feel warmth, understanding, and a powerful, compassionate, and courageous energy.
Georgeannie’s life has been difficult. She is a survivor of rape. She was further traumatized by learning that she was infected with HIV. For many victims of rape, a sense of shame prevents them from telling people what happened. For many people living with HIV, the stigma of the disease also keeps them silent and closeted.
Six years ago, Georgeannie made a decision to stop living in fear and shame and to stand up and tell the truth about what happened to her. But she has faced consequences from being so open. She was condemned by members of the church that she was attending. Some members of her family shunned her. Her son’s girlfriend would not allow her to see her grandchild because they were afraid she would infect them. Her children and grandchildren have heard people call her very hateful and demeaning names. Georgeannie’s story is one of pain and rejection and judgment, but is also a story of acceptance and unconditional love. With a deep well of courage and hope, Georgeannie has walked through the valley of the shadow of death—both literally and metaphonically—and has discovered a faith and a sense of purpose and mission.
The hardest part of living with HIV for Georgeannie is that it forces her to slow down. By her nature, Georgeannie is a social person and loves to be active, always busy with her family and her work. When the disease began affecting her energy, she no longer had the stamina to work full-time and was often too tired to take care of her family. She lost her job and her home, and had to be separated from her children.
The pain and the stigma were too much for Georgeannie. She hid. She took shelter in a housing program for people living with HIV, refusing to leave unless it was totally necessary for food or doctor’s appointments. Each month, she saw her neighbors get on a van to go to Poz Café, a lunch program for people living with HIV sponsored by the Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network (TIHAN). But Georgeannie wouldn’t go. She was embarrassed to be identified in public with other people living with this disease. And, even though she desperately needed the items that were distributed in the care packages at Poz Cafe, she couldn’t bring herself to go.
Until one day, when all of her neighbors were getting into the van, and one seat was left. Her neighbor Sterling yelled out to her: “Come on, just come once! You can do it, we have a seat open. Come on!” Something inside her soul said “yes,” and Georgeannie got on the van, and had her first Poz Cafe experience, which changed her life.
When Georgeannie walked into the Poz Café, people greeted her, hugged her, talked to her, and treated her with respect. “I was amazed and overwhelmed. It had been so long since I had been treated like a normal person. Here were these strangers who hugged me. They weren’t afraid to touch me.” Georgeannie experienced the embrace of TIHAN volunteers from congregations, people of faith who didn’t see her or treat her as a sinner but as a glorious child of God.
After the lunch, after talking with others who were living with HIV, and after playing Bingo, Georgeannie was given a care package. “I didn’t want to take a ‘hand out,’ but it wasn’t given as a hand out. It was given as a gift.”
Georgeannie will tell you that Poz Café is what motivated her to open up, to see love and compassion again, and to count her blessings. It helped her to live again. Since then, she has been an unstoppable force of love and compassion. She fearlessly tells her story to faith communities, to schools, to newspaper and television reporters, to anyone who will listen.
“People need to know that we are all the same, it doesn’t matter how you were infected with HIV, but that we are all just people. People who are living with HIV.”
There is a greater understanding of HIV and more acceptance, Georgeannie says, and things are getting better, but there is still a great deal of fear and misconception. “I am doing everything I can to change that. I see it as my duty. I hope others will stand with me to educate our kids and our families.”
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