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GMHC Mourns the Loss of Ellie Barr, Beloved Hotline Volunteer

EllieBeloved long-time Hotline volunteer and life-long political activist, Elinor "Ellie" Barr died on Sunday, October 13. Brooklyn-born, Ellie's extensive political activism included free-speech advocacy that resulted in expulsion from high school and participation in a London protest that found her carted off in a paddy wagon.  She worked with Brooklyn CORE for union integration and was a member in the peace movement for over 65 years including Grandmothers for Peace protesting regularly in Times Square.  A GMHC Hotline volunteer since 1998, Ellie was legendary as a counselor who skillfully and compassionately counseled a wide range of people about life-saving information on HIV/AIDS, safer sex and sexual orientation.  Ellie's face always lit up when talking about another passion - her love of children, including her three children, David, Daniel and Rachel, and three grandchildren about whom she often shared her delight.  Ellie was among the early faculty at Kingsborough Community College where she taught early childhood education for 40 years. David Barr, who first suggested Hotline volunteering to Ellie, was an integral staff member of GMHC for a number of years and continues his HIV/AIDS activism globally.  Ellie loved literature, film and the music of John Coltrane.  Ultimately, Ellie made an exemplary difference in the lives of thousands of people.   Ellie shared herself with all of us and will live on in our memories.  Details of a memorial service to be provided.

Helping HIV-Positive People Combat Fears and Return to Work: The April Watkins Story

AprilIn September, 2012, I was invited by the National Working Positive Coalition and the White House to participate in panel discussion on assisting people living with HIV to re-enter the workforce.  This one-day conference, held at the tail end of the International AIDS Conference, put workforce development back on the radar for HIV treatment advocates across the world.  When HIV-positive people are working, they are also more likely to take care of themselves, monitor their health, adhere to their medical appointments and take their anti-retroviral medications.  Going back to work helps prevent the spread of HIV – it keeps people living with HIV healthy and improves their self-esteem.  In my decade of employment at GMHC I have seen firsthand the huge impact that work has had on people.

Back in 1999, I was diagnosed HIV-positive.  Initially I was terrified.  While my family was supportive, I left my job to deal with my medical condition, but was then looking for something to do.  I found the Bowery Residents Committee‘s Adult Day Healthcare program (BRC ADHC).  I went to the program every day and it was great.  The staff taught us about living, when we thought we were going to die.  We learned sculpting, painting, yoga, horticulture-- all wonderful classes--yet I wanted more.  One day I saw a bus pull up and clients from another BRC program got on the bus.  Where were they going?  I soon learned they were going to Rye Playground.  I asked when the ADHC program was planning to go – it looked like fun. Then I was informed that HIV-positive clients did not have this opportunity.   I also learned about the BRC vocational program, where people got to do part-time work and be paid, and found out that yet again, we were not included.  This got my blood boiling to the point where I wanted to start organizing.  I was one of the first clients of ADHC to become part of the CAB. I and fought for HIV-positive clients to be able to access all programs – for us to be eligible to participate in the vocational stipend program, and go on day-trips.  The great news is we won!  I became the first HIV-positive client who got a stipend-position, and began my career.  Initially, I was hired as the receptionist for the stipend program.  I was promoted and my duties expanded.  Soon I was working on a back-to-work contract and helping people with substance-use issues return to the work force.
Through my work at BRC, I became well known within the workforce community, and eventually met some of the staff at GMHC, who were about to launch their own back-to-work program.  After talking with staff at GMHC, I knew I wanted to be at an agency where serving people living with HIV and AIDS was at the core of its mission.  I came to GMHC as a Job Readiness Instructor and was then promoted several times, eventually becoming the Assistant Director of Workforce, running the MATCH program (Moving Ahead Toward Career Horizons). 
At GMHC, I have changed people’s lives for the better, helping them move forward, despite worries and occasional setbacks.  I have witnessed our clients find themselves after feeling afraid.  What if I fail?  What if I get sick and have to leave the job?  I experienced that myself . When I fortified myself and went back into the workforce, the experience was transformative.  Having a job made my life so much better.  My team and I help take away the darkness that HIV can often bring.  We help people feel better about themselves, and let them see that they can stand on their own.  We offer an array of job readiness services including resume writing and interview preparation.  We offer a service called Power Suited by MATCH that provides professional attire so people are dressed properly as they look for work, which also boosts their confidence.  Life coaches volunteer their time to assess where each client is in their job search, and offer assistance on building up skills or tasks they need to be successful.  We also have a state-of-the-art computer lab, with interactive software, to teach Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other key skills that can lead to employment.
Too often our HIV-status can make us feel less than others.  Yet, when we go back to work, we combat our fears, reclaim control of our lives and we thrive.
I get up every morning eager to come to GMHC.  I know each day I will work with people who need me – who need our program and who want to succeed.  We are here to help people transform their lives.  We have a record of success and need more support to expand what we are doing – to help more people living with HIV and those at high-risk of HIV, to get back into the workforce.  Together, the MATCH team at GMHC is making miracles happen every day.
Joy Tomchin's Courageous Remarks at Savor

Joy TomchinOn March 21, 2013, GMHC hosted its fifth annual culinary gala, SAVOR, at Cipriani 42nd St. Joy Tomchin received the Judith Peabody Humanitarian Award. Her remarks continue to ring true today.

"Well, I guess I can finally take my tuxedo off! There's a few people here that I want to recognize:

First, an amazing AIDS activist and one of the founders of GMHC, Larry Kramer. I can only describe Larry as our Catalyst-in-Chief. I am astonished at his historical power every time I watch the heart-stopping scene in our film, How to Survive a Plague, where despair turns to infighting and he explodes: "Plague--we are in the middle of a fucking plague, and you behave like this! Plague--forty million people is a fucking plague." Larry, you changed the world with your words and your foresight, with your anger and love, and we have all followed in your footsteps. 

My older brother, Stan, who is one of my closest friends. Stan, you were the first person in my life to let me know that it's okay for me to be gay, to be who I am. But it wasn't just the words, you have always supported me and the LGBT community in everything you have done.

My incredible son, Evan. Evan, I'm so proud of the man you are becoming. I'm proud that you graduated Bronx Science, I'm proud that you worked on How to Survive a Plague, I'm proud that you're now at Oberlin, and really proud that you've taught me incredible patience over the last 18 years. I love you.

Susan Thames, my closest friend, advisor, and family for the past 35 years. What an amazing friendship and love we've had. Our families merged. Thank you for sharing those years with me.

Alan Getz, cousin, business partner for thirty years, and close friend. Alan, you should really share this award with me. When I was nominated to the GMHC Board, Alan pushed me to say yes, even though I would be out of the office so much of the time. But maybe you wanted me out of the office all that time! You are an honorary GMHC volunteer. 

And last, but not least, we have some other heroes and stars from How to Survive a Plague, who, alongside Larry, and the tireless people at GMHC all these years, are responsible for saving untold millions of lives. Would you please stand up: Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, David Barr, and remember that little six year-old girl in the film, Bob Rafsky's daughter, Sara Rafsky.

I would like to tell a quick story about the amazing Judy Peabody. When I first became president of the Board, I decided that I would take each board member out to dinner once a year. So my evening came with Judy--I made a reservation at a quiet place in the Village and got there really early. I was a little nervous and I wanted to be on time. So I entered the restaurant and the maitre d' asked me to wait at the bar. I said I preferred to wait at the table, and he refused, saying strongly that I could not sit at a table unless my entire party was there. So I quietly waited at the bar until Judy arrived. Then they seated us at probably the best table in the house; they brought over drinks and appetizers, and then dessert later--all on the house! The owner then came over to introduce himself. On the way out, Judy put her hand on my arm and said, "you must get this everywhere you go!"

In 1984, a real estate broker came to see me and Alan about a building we owned on West 20th Street. He said he had a client who was very interested in buying or net leasing our property, but he wouldn't tell us who it was unless we signed a one-day exclusive with him to protect the pricacy of the tenant. We signed it, he flipped the page over and wrote Gay Men's Health Crisis. "Why the secrecy?" we asked, and he told us it was because no landlord would deal with them. We were horrified, and we dealt with them.

So began the almost 30-year relationship I've had with GMHC. I already had friends that were sick and dying, but then the numbers started to skyrocket and I found myself so sad, and so angry, but not sure what I could do.

I worked on the building committee for two years to help with the renovation of the new building. Then, Ira Berger, the second president of the Board, ill already, asked me to join the board. In 1986, Nathan Kolodner, third president of the Board, asked me from his hospital bed, if I would take over as president. I was so nervous, but I knew it was the right thing to do. Soon after, I was elected unanimously by a Board that was almost exclusively gay men. The organization was growing at an ungodly speed, as was the disease, but we were so sure we would put an end to AIDS that we actually discussed what we would do with GMHC when the epidemic ended! One of our goals was to see GMHC go out of business.

32 years, folks. 32 years, and no end in sight! I still revere GMHC and am so proud of the work I did here. I'm proud that GMHC now serves all communities affected by HIV/AIDS.

But, as always, we must still stand up for the gay community.

An estimated 30,000 gay men in this country became infected with HIV in 2010 alone. They are the single, largest risk group, and they are the fastest growing cohort of new infections. These are mostly young gay men, over half of those are young, black gay men. Over 7,000 gay men in this country die from HIV/AIDS every year. 

Where is the government?

Where is the activism?

Where is the LGBT community?

Busy--changing the laws on marriage, on the military, on adoption, on insurance. I believe AIDS was largerly responsible for coalescing the LGBT community, and certainly for teaching the community that we need to raise money and write checks--and now we know we can raise a lot of money! Have we, as a community, forgotten about AIDS?

We should be demanding more prevention breakthroughs, especially in our community. And we should be fighting the ban on needle exchange; fighting criminalization of HIV; and, especially, fighting for money for research for a cure, because those incredible little pills that are the hero of How to Survive a Plague, no matter how miraculous they have been, are still far from the AIDS cure we need. The world is still at risk. And more than ever, gay men are still at risk. Let's make sure we keep the "gay" in GMHC."

How The White House's Working Group Can Help Us Achieve An AIDS-Free Generation

By Erica Rothschild
Many people think the HIV epidemic in the U.S. is under control, that there is no longer a sense of urgency. Yes, we have lifesaving medications, but only 25% of the 1.1 million Americans living with HIV are effectively controlling their HIV with medications. Thirty-three percent of those living with HIV are not even linked to any medical care. Nearly 20% of those who are HIV-positive do not even know they have HIV. Despite the fact that we have the tools to contain and even end this epidemic, many barriers stand in the way of reaching an AIDS free generation.

We need a plan that will break through those barriers, allowing people to know their status and to be linked to medical care. President Obama agrees.
On July 15, in honor of the three-year anniversary of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, the President signed an Executive Order outlining his latest plan to help us reach an AIDS free generation. The National HIV/AIDS Strategy pledged to reduce new HIV infections and improve health outcomes for those living with HIV/AIDS. To help fulfill that pledge, the Executive Order establishes a new, interagency HIV Continuum of Care Working Group, which is charged with meeting three main goals: 1) increasing HIV testing (especially for people ages 15-65); 2) ensuring earlier treatment for HIV-positive people after their diagnosis; and 3) providing them with access to care.
President Obama recognizes that because of advancements in research and treatment, we are in the greatest position we have ever been to end the epidemic. Yet it will only happen if we take the necessary steps, and the President gave the Working Group 180 days to recommend evidence-based solutions that effectively address these goals.
The President’s plan instructs the Working Group to identify impediments to improving outcomes along the HIV care continuum, particularly for populations at greatest risk, and then identify opportunities to tackle those impediments.
As the Community Organizer at GMHC, I work with women and men affected by HIV and AIDS every day to help them identify and overcome impediments to living healthier lives. These include access to stable housing, obtaining medications while incarcerated, finding work after extended unemployment, and battling insurance companies. Each year we fight budget cuts at the city, state, and federal level that threaten our nutritional hot meals programs and reduce supportive housing options, among other critical services. GMHC’s clients will tell you that improving health outcomes is about a lot more than just having access to medication.
Recognizing this need to fight HIV on all fronts, The President’s new Working Group includes representatives from the Departments of Justice, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs.
You may ask what the Department of Justice (DOJ) has to do with the HIV epidemic. It’s simple – HIV is four times more prevalent in incarcerated populations than in the general public. Once released, previously incarcerated people suffer from a lack of resources and are less likely to have health care. Therefore, they are less able to effectively control their virus.
You may ask what the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has to do with the HIV epidemic. Well, due to the high cost of medications and higher rates of unemployment (because of discrimination or health-related absences), 50% of people living with HIV are at risk of becoming homeless and need access to financial support that helps keep a roof over their heads. Many people who come to GMHC are homeless or living in untenable situations. GMHC has to resolve their housing situations before they can be successfully connected to care, and begin to get their HIV under control.
The HIV epidemic has always been interconnected with issues beyond physical health. GMHC salutes the President for including the DOJ, HUD and many other federal agencies as a part of the Working Group – their participation is critical to achieving success. All agencies (from local to federal) must create policies, programs and services that positively affect the lives of not only people living with HIV/AIDS, but also those most at risk of infection.
Moving forward, this plan is not just an opportunity for bureaucrats to make recommendations. The White House is offering $30.7 million in grants to turn policy recommendations into practice. In an environment where funding for HIV services is being cut at all levels of government, this support is crucial to meeting the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.
The President’s comprehensive solution to ending the epidemic is much-needed and long overdue. The structure of the cross-departmental Working Group, in combination with new funding, will help turn innovative ideas into action. This makes me optimistic that we will begin to see more traction in fighting HIV and AIDS on a domestic level. In this era of budget cuts, people living with HIV are struggling more than ever to find resources that enable them to stay healthy. This plan is an important next step to reaching an AIDS free generation.