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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.

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