BRISTOL - Curtis began taking his medication regularly after he attended the Journey 2 Wellness support program sponsored by the New Britain and Bristol Human Resources Agency.
A woman said she is learning to live again thanks to the group after receiving what she thought was a death sentence when she was diagnosed with HIV years ago.
Mary contracted HIV from a needle in her job as a nurse at a rehab center 38 years ago.
“Because I found HRA, my life is a whole lot better,” she said.
For about a year and a half, HRA in both cities have been providing people dealing with HIV and AIDS support in a way that previously didn’t exist.
“We’ve been trying to put a lot of focus on HIV and AIDS for the past year or so,” said HRA spokeswoman Caren Dickman. “There are no other groups that service them.”
The HRA provides services for people in Bristol, New Britain, Burlington, Farmington, Plainville and Plymouth.
Members of the communities living with HIV and AIDS were invited Wednesday to come to the HRA Bristol office at 55 South St. to learn about Journey 2 Wellness during a networking event that included lunch and a chance to learn more about what the support group provides.
Through the Journey 2 Wellness program, four times a month, people can attend a support group led by peers also living with HIV and AIDS to receive valuable information on accessing medical care, how to properly deal with medication, the importance of health screenings such as mammograms, and the availability of a host of other services. The groups also provide emotional support for people who often don’t have family or feel like they can’t reveal their diagnosis, organizers said.
“There’s a lot of power in the groups,” said Journey 2 Wellness psycho-social coordinator Valerie Ingram, who works for the New Britain HRA. “There’s a strength, sometimes we cry, sometimes we laugh, sometimes we yell.
The Spanish-speaking New Britain Journey 2 Wellness program called El Viage, which means “the journey to wellness,” is led by Cruz, who has dealt with HIV for over 30 years. “For me it’s all about giving back,” said Cruz, who contracted the virus through drug use. “I’ve been sober for over 25 years.”
His group started with two members but has steadily grown, he said. “All of a sudden we had to get a bigger table and more chairs,” Cruz said. “Some of the people don’t speak English, so it’s easy for them to communicate in the Spanish-speaking group. That way they still get the information.”
One of the biggest hurdles people face is the stigma attached to an HIV positive diagnosis, or a diagnosis of AIDS, said Alice Ferguson, a longtime AIDS survivor who also leads a Journey 2 Wellness group.
Ferguson said she noticed while volunteering at the recent Rockwell Summer Festival that people seemed to struggle with coming over to the Bristol Mayor’s Task Force on HIV and AIDS booth to get information. “They seemed hesitant to come forward, “ she said. She encourages anyone dealing with the diagnosis to come to the meetings.
“After people attend for any length of time, they leave stronger,” Ferguson said. “It gives people an outlet for all their pain.”
Until Curtis started attending, he wasn’t taking his medication, he said. He’s also learned how to better manage his anger.
“I’ve grown a lot,” Curtis said. “Before I came I had a hot temper, but I learned to humble myself.”
His involvement and his activism for those with AIDS isn’t about himself, Curtis said. “It’s about the people coming after me,” he said.
For more information on Journey 2 Wellness, contact Ingram at 860-826-4741, ext. 2803 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@centralctcommunications.com.