AIDS is our modern-day leprosy. Even 25 years into the epidemic people still cringe when they hear the word AIDS. In our Diocese of Rochester it affects the poor, the rich, men, women and even children, whites and people of color, the young and the old — AIDS does not discriminate; it affects us all in some way. We, as Catholics, need to remember that people with AIDS and their families are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we should not shun them. We need to embrace them and offer them our support.
Catholic Charities Community Services has been ministering to persons infected/affected by AIDS/HIV and their families since 1990, but even prior to that Bishop Matthew H. Clark had issued a paper asking people of the diocese to “show compassion” to those infected or affected by the AIDS virus. Currently CCCS is providing services to more that 150 HIV-positive persons and another 150 family members who are affected by the virus. CCCS AIDS Services programs include:
* Linking people with needed services, providing information and advocacy, and helping them to work on goals to achieve self-sufficiency (case management).
* Emergency assistance with rent and utility bills .
* Long-term rental assistance though housing subsidies.
* Assisting families with minor children prior to and after the death of the primary caregiver.
* Camp SOAR and other recreational activities that promote positive interaction among families.
Who are the most vulnerable people impacted by AIDS in our diocese? They are poor, living at or below the Federal poverty level. Many are women, often with minor children. They are living in substandard housing, often paying 40 percent or 50 percent of their income for that housing. Many, in addition to having HIV disease, are also impacted by substance abuse and mental-health issues. HIV-positive people live in every county of the Rochester Diocese.
On the positive side, over that past 15 years that CCCS has had an AIDS program, AIDS has gone from being a death sentence within two to three years to being a chronic disease with people living many years after diagnosis. We still see people dying, but it is one person or fewer a month rather than the two to three people a week like we originally saw.
This summer we will be holding our eighth Camp SOAR, a one-week summer camp for children infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. Sixty children ages 6 to 14 will attend camp, for free. Here the children have a safe and nurturing place to talk about AIDS, their dreams, their fears and their struggles with caring adults and other children/adolescents facing the same challenges. As one of the teens said last year, “I can come here and be myself. I can’t go to school and tell my friends that my mom has AIDS. People don’t understand. AIDS is not a socially acceptable disease, like cancer or diabetes. I can’t risk telling my friends and losing them because of the prejudice they have against the disease.”
As caring Christians we need to break down the barriers locally and make it OK to talk about AIDS, become involved in AIDS ministries and support those infected/affected with the AIDS virus.
Hallinen is director of AIDS services at Catholic Charities Community Services. For more information on HIV/AIDS or CCCS services, contact her at 585/339-9800.