I would like to say that I became involved in HIV care services and advocacy because I was a concerned community member, but that is not the whole truth. The real story is that like most uninformed people, I was terrified of HIV. I was paranoid about contracting the virus (from situations I now know was impossible to contract it from) and would go for HIV testing more than was necessary. When I began volunteering for the GLBT Community Center on Mills Avenue, I learned about their volunteer based HIV counselor program. I was in school for mental health counseling and decided then and there I was going to get educated and overcome this fear. That decision changed my personal and professional life and I am so grateful I took that step from ignorance to knowledge.
I know that there are many others, both HIV positive and HIV negative individuals who are carrying around a great deal of misconceptions about HIV. Our schools fail us by not educating youth about the reality of HIV. It has become a passion of mine to help shed light on the dark corners of this issue. I’d like to talk about two initiatives I am most excited about.
In the summer of 2015, I was the Director of Clinical Services for the GLBT Center and running the HIV/STI/Hep C testing programs. I was alarmed by the number of young gay men (under 30) being diagnosed with HIV at The Center each and every month. There was no break. Every few days we were telling a person in his teens and early twenties that he was HIV positive. Many of these young men were scared. They weren’t out to parents, they didn’t have jobs or health insurance. They worried that no one could love them and they would be alone for the rest of their lives. It was heartbreaking and something needed to be done. I sat down with the mental health counselors at The Center and shared with them my idea of a 6-week support and educational group for young gay/bi men under the age of 30 recently diagnosed with HIV. They were on board and at that moment A.W.A.R.E was born. The acronym, created by Nicole Elinoff, means Achieving Wellness and Reaching Excellence. It perfectly exemplifies what A.W.A.R.E is and has grown to become. Impulse Group Orlando took A.W.A.R.E. under its wing and has been providing much needed support, such as advertising, free transportation to members who need a ride, and an amazing dinner for the participants at the end of each group. Now based out of Two Spirit Health Services, A.W.A.R.E will begin its 5th group on September 12th. This program has changed people’s lives by giving them the hope and knowledge they so desperately need to move forward after a HIV diagnosis. The group is free and a lot of fun. If you or someone you know would like to enroll in the September group, please email me (Lindsay) at email@example.com.
A.W.A.R.E. was definitely a “ah-ha” moment and I had another one like it when I was presenting about HIV to a group of mental health counseling students at Stetson University. At the end of the presentation they asked me where they could go to find all of the information I had presented in one place. I couldn’t answer that question because such a place didn’t exist. There wasn’t a clearing house of information about HIV for mental health clinicians that was specific to our local area. As a result of this problem, I decided to create a website called Red Ribbon Counseling (http://lindsaykincaide.wixsite.com/redribboncounseling) for my Capstone project that is a part of my master’s degree. The site features HIV facts, treatment guidelines, information about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and community referrals specifically directed towards mental health clinicians in East Central Florida. If every mental health professional assessed for HIV knowledge with their clients and shared information with them we would have a much better handle on the HIV epidemic. I hope this site empowers clinicians to become HIV advocates in their practices and daily lives.
What I have learned over the last couple of years is that you just never know when an experience is going to transform your life. For me, one of my greatest fears became one of my greatest passions. What about your fears? Take a look. You might be surprised what you find…….