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by Jessica Carreras
Emily Brown is a facilitator and board member of Open Arms, the Ferndale-based support group for people living with HIV/AIDS. Brown helps to do marketing for the group, and also works as a community liaison.
1) How did you get involved with Open Arms?
I saw a want ad in Michigan HIV News for a volunteer support group facilitator. Even though I knew a lot about the virus, I lacked the perspective of someone living with HIV. It was an experience I felt I needed to have.
To tell the truth, I was scared out of my mind; I was afraid of falling in love with and losing people who were ill. To the contrary, although I did fall in love, the last five years have been full of hope and laughter. Generally, the people who attend Open Arms are unwilling to let a positive HIV diagnosis stop them from living successful lives. Every week is a challenge and a testament to the healing power of friendship.
2) What services does the group provide?
Open Arms is a weekly support group for people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. During our meetings, we diligently follow guidelines of confidentiality, respect, responsibility, punctuality and sobriety. Each attendee has an opportunity to speak about his or her experience with HIV/AIDS or related issues, and the group responds.
During the summer, we offer a lecture series in which HIV/AIDS-related experts in the community visit and offer education and advice to our members. We also participate in AIDS Walk Detroit and have a yearly holiday celebration in January.
The value of support group is twofold: participants offer dozens of perspectives on any problem, and they remind us all that we’re not alone in whatever we’re going through. Living with HIV/AIDS without the benefit of group support is difficult. There are so many choices to make – medications, doctors, lifestyle recommendations – it’s nearly impossible to keep up with. Our discussions lead to informed decisions about wellness. There really isn’t much funding for psychosocial support for people living with HIV/AIDS in Michigan, and attending Open Arms is essentially free (although we do take donations!).
3) What do you enjoy about being involved with the group?
Open Arms has inspired me to understand the value of social networking in health and wellness. People who are connected to other people are better equipped to keep themselves healthy and prevent new infections than those who are isolated.
On a personal level, it’s very uplifting to know that people will stop at nothing (including HIV) to accomplish their goals. Over the years, I’ve seen members complete college degrees, finish athletic competitions, start companies, get new jobs, partner up and/or get married and raise children. Life always goes on; Open Arms empowers people to take it by the reins. It’s amazing to witness, and very humbling.
4) How has Open Arms been able to grow since merging with MAC?
With the support of MAC, Open Arms hopes to gain new members and grow our network. We have plans to build a website that will link from MAC’s so that people seeking support can easily find us. MAC also gives us our own space in the building, a phone, a computer and other office supplies so that we can tackle logistical challenges. Helen Hicks, MAC’s CEO, has helped us acquire funding for new outreach activities by writing grants.
We feel that Open Arms and MAC have a symbiotic relationship: MAC acquired a fully functioning, historically successful support group, and Open Arms acquired the opportunity to help more newly diagnosed people in the community.
5) How do you think the community benefits from having a group like Open Arms?
From a public health perspective, support groups are part of a philosophy of “prevention for positives,” in which those who are infected learn ways to keep themselves healthy and their partners safe from new infections.
On a “big picture” level, the existence of Open Arms sends a signal to the community: This is a place where everyone belongs. A community without a group like Open Arms is a community I don’t want to live in. Strong, diverse communities work to address their residents’ diverse needs. HIV exists in nearly every community, and support groups are one way that we can address the epidemic and acknowledge those in need without excluding anyone.
Visit http://www.michiganaidscoalition.org to learn more.