JV AmeriCorps member Connor Hayes (Portland, OR ’16-17) serves as Activities and Events Coordinator with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO) in Portland, Oregon. In honor of World AIDS Day, which took place on December 1, 2016, Connor reflects on his service and the valuable relationships he has formed with clients.
Coming into my JV AmeriCorps year after four busy years of college, I wasn’t the best at appreciating the small moments in life. Amid the whirlwind of essays, applications, activities, and more, I began to forget the importance of relationships and little shared moments in sustaining and nourishing all of us as we move through life. Yet just a few months serving at the EMO HIV Day Center with many folks who have lived with HIV for decades has shifted this trend. The clients I serve have taught me so much about having a positive outlook in difficult times and truly valuing my relationships with those around me. It’s this growth that I’m most thankful for as I reflect on my service and World AIDS Day.
One of my most meaningful lessons from the Day Center is the value and impact of small interactions within a community. From asking someone who keeps to himself to join a mindful meditation session, to the extra piece of cake silently dropped off next to the person having a difficult time accessing medical services, to the minute-long hug when someone walks in the door, I’ve heard from many folks that it is these simple gestures that can turn their entire day or week around. Coming into this year, I expected to be present to clients when they needed to talk about a crisis they were going through. However, I’m slowly realizing that in social work and life, celebrating a rapidly declining viral load or other great moment with a high-five can be equally as meaningful to someone.
One long-time client at the Day Center, who passed away suddenly a few weeks into my service year, embodied a consistent ethic of this- finding joy in the most basic of interactions and sharing that joy with all. Every person who walked in would be greeted with a heartfelt, “hey, brother” (or, in my case, despite the fact I’m six feet tall, “hey, little brother!”) Even on his most difficult days, he would try to put on the biggest smile and most jolly demeanor I’ve seen in a long time, so folks struggling to stay positive about life could look to him and feel a bit more hopeful. Despite his increasing age, he was always finding something to do for the community, like walking in the Portland AIDS Walk or helping others fight the stigma around HIV.
As I’ve reflected this week on the lessons I have learned, I have been spending a lot of time thinking back to the AIDS Walk, which was a major event held in September. Walking together with a group from the Day Center, I was in awe of the joy and communal care evident in the entire HIV-positive community in Portland, not just our small community at the Day Center. Many of the clients at the Day Center and the broader HIV/AIDS community have survived significant struggles in life- from the initial shock of their diagnoses to the passing of countless close friends. Yet the event was anything but solemn. Instead, the AIDS Walk served as a celebration of life and community with friends and family turning out in thousands to support those they care about who are living with HIV, to affirm the dignity of all regardless of HIV status, and to show their hope for a more positive future.
For me, that positivity in the face of adversity is what makes World AIDS Day this past week so important. Certainly, it is a time to fundraise, to act, and to raise awareness for the continuing HIV crisis in various places around the world. It’s also a time to appreciate the strength, fortitude, and zest for life that the HIV-positive community embodies- a perspective that all of us can learn from.