JV AmeriCorps member Anthony Yakely (Anchorage, AK ’16-17) serves as the Client Services Specialist with Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association (Four A’s) in Anchorage, Alaska. To commemorate World AIDS Day, Anthony reflects on how his knowledge of HIV/AIDS has shifted from academic to interpersonal because of his experiences at Four A’s.
Before this year, HIV/AIDS had always been presented to me in academic terms. My knowledge of it included words like “retrovirus,” “opportunistic infection,” and “cytomegalovirus.” After four years as a biochemistry major, I had learned a lot of the science behind HIV/AIDS. However, I did not yet know the human side of it having never personally known someone who is HIV-positive. Coming out of school, I was feeling burnt out and had a strong desire to serve in a hands-on role. When I was presented with the opportunity of serving my JV AmeriCorps year as the Client Services Specialist at Four A’s, I immediately jumped on the chance. This was what I was looking for.
I went into Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest wanting a sense of community and to have a chance to build relationships with all those I met. The first couple weeks were a whirlwind for me- meeting new faces and adjusting to a new service site in a new state on the other side of the country. However, after that initial adjustment, I began to build the relationships I craved. It started out small- sitting with clients at Friday lunches after I was done serving the meal and chatting about everything from family to living in Alaska. Little by little, I got to know the clients better.
With each Friday lunch and Thursday client event, I got to know those I was serving, the struggles they had faced, the addiction they had overcome and were currently battling, and the challenges and successes in everyday life. My favorite client activity so far has been pumpkin carving. By engaging with others in a holiday tradition that I love, I found the joy of just being, sitting, laughing, and sharing stories. My knowledge of HIV/AIDS had shifted from the academic to the interpersonal. It was an experiential learning- the concepts I had learned were being put into the faces of those I served through sharing meals, smiles, and arts and crafts. This disease described in almost mythical terms now had faces and stories that I had grown to treasure.
Unfortunately, the stigma for those living with HIV/AIDS still exists within our society. I have seen that the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS comes from a place of fear. Because some of the ways the disease can be transmitted are often taboo, it creates a negative attitude towards those who are HIV-positive. By putting a face to the disease, I have seen the problem of this attitude. I have met clients who care deeply for others, often going out of their way to help other clients who are not as fortunate. It is in this generosity and in my daily interactions with clients that challenge what society says about those who are HIV-positive.
Today is World AIDS Day, and we will gather as a community to unite in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Our entire staff will be holding a candlelight vigil to remember those who have died of HIV/AIDS, including some of our clients who passed away this year. Also, we will view the film “The Normal Heart,” which tells a tale of the early days of HIV/AIDS activism in New York City. This reminds us that the fight against HIV/AIDS is still not over, even as treatment and research continue to improve. It reminds me of the faces of those I serve every day.