Hope Wissel

World AIDS Day 2016

wad-poster-thumb-2016This day every year makes me emotional as I reflect on the lives of those who lost their battle, those who continue to fight and those who unfortunately will still contract HIV.  For those who don’t know my story, you are probably wondering why this has such an impact on me, right?

When I first entered recovery, I was on PTI (Pre-Trial Intervention) and had to do community service.  They handed me a book and said “pick something”.  I selected the South Jersey AIDS Alliance and the rest is history.  It was then I started what would become a 15 year commitment to those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.  From Case Manager to County Director to Advocate and County Ryan White Grant Manager.

For me, I am reflecting on the lessons that I learned when I worked for the South Jersey AIDS Alliance. As a new “inexperienced” Social Worker and a recovering addict, I was the “crazy white lady” stepping into Bridgeton wanting to help the world. Yes, many of my clients thought it and willing shared as we got to know each other.

I didn’t the people who walked through our doors as “diseased”, “hopeless” or less than. I saw them as people who because of their bad choices were sick. “There by the grace of God go I” was a constant reminder for me since I too had made bad choices over the years.

So what could I do in a little office (actually half a duplex) with little funding, the only paid staff, a handful of volunteers (who in many cases were also clients) and a heart to save them all. In the early years, AIDS was not a “manageable disease” for many it was a death sentence. It took babies from their mothers, it took moms and dads from their kids, it took people from all walks of life – yet no one talked about it. I can remember the first few funerals where the family said “they died of cancer” because they did not want their loved one to be remembered for the stigma of HIV/AIDS. This was the world I dedicated a large portion of my professional life to. Belinda grew up joining me in this battle to end the stigma of HIV/AIDS. She played with kids who were HIV-positive, she shared her toys, she helped with fundraising, as well as sorting and delivering holiday toys. She, too, grew up with a passion for helping people.

Fast forward to today, where little is spoken about HIV/AIDS unless a celebrity says the words. It is now a manageable disease so we seldom hear the prevention message. There are medicines, so why worry, right?

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We aren’t there yet – we are close. There are still 1.1 million people living with HIV in the US today. Only 1 in 4 people are making their way through the obstacles called health care and medications. Let’s not be complacent. Let’s continue to share how HIV can be transmitted.

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Today is in honor of those who lost their fight, and those who continue to fight every day. You blessed my life more than you will ever know. Thank you for allowing this “crazy white chick” to be a part of your lives.

The theme this year is “Leadership, Commitment Impact”.  What will you do to make an impact?  Consider donating to agencies who help improve the quality of life for those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

Have a ThirtyOne-derful day!

Hope Wissel

Ryan White Remembered

This past Monday was the anniversary of Ryan White’s death. Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS at age 13. He and his mother fought for his right to attend school, gaining international attention as a voice of reason about HIV/AIDS. At the age of 18, Ryan White died on April 8, 1990, just months before Congress passed the AIDS bill that bears his name – the Ryan White CARE (Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency) Act.

WOW! It hardly seems possible that 23 years has passed since his death.  It would be about a year later that I would come to learn about him, his life and how my life would be changed forever with my involvement with the South Jersey AIDS Alliance (SJAA).  

I began with SJAA as a community service volunteer – mandated to do 180 hours of community service.  I finished my hours in the weeks before December 1st, World AIDS Day but the people I met there kept me involved for 9 years.  Memories of Matt McCrossen, Web and many others helped me to put a face to the AIDS panademic.  I joined the staff of SJAA in 1990 working in Cumberland County where AIDS was a taboo subject.  My clients and their families became a part of mine and my daughter, Belinda’s, life.  It was there that Belinda learned about diversity, compassion, giving and helping others.  She gladly shared her toys with others who had nothing.  Holidays took on a special meaning as we, along with my SJAA staff and volunteers, made them special for the children affected and infected with HIV/AIDS in Cumberland County.    

Also during this time, my roommate’s sister was diagnosed with AIDS along with two of her children.  Que and Brittany fought daily for their life against this deadly disease.  Brittany was born the same day as my daughter Belinda and her battle ended quickly while Que lived to the age of 9 years old.  Belinda loved playing with Que, he didn’t talk but they could sit for hours playing and talking in their own way.  

My years working for SJAA, then as Staff for the Cumberland County HIV Planning Council and a Board member of New Jersey Women and AIDS Network – were an emotional journey of growing professionally and personally.  Memories that I am grateful for.  People who taught me so much without even knowing it.  As I look back on the last few years, there is little talk about HIV/AIDS.  An occasional story in paper but not much else.  Some would say that is because there isn’t as big of a problem or it’s not a “deadly” disease now – only a “chronic” disease.  

The bottom line is that there are still people becoming infected.  We need to be proactive in sharing the stories that will prevent others from becoming infected from this deadly disease.  As for me, I will be looking for more opportunities to get involved locally now that I have moved from South Jersey.  I would love to help some families who are infected and/ or affected by HIV/AIDS locally – let me know via email or message if you know someone.  

Have a ThirtyOne-derful day.