Once a month, a small group of Chicago Cares volunteers cooks and serves a healthy lunch for the women who meet for a support group at the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project.
Last weekend, I visited to learn more about the South Shore center, which serves self-identified women who are HIV positive or are at risk of contracting HIV, as well as women who have a history of homelessness, incarceration or addiction.
As I walked into the center tucked quietly into a row of retail stores, I was warmly greeted by several women who are part of the community there, many of whom self-identified as long-time survivors of HIV. We all shook hands and sat down, when the women began telling me their stories.
Theirs are stories of challenge; of stigma and change over the decades; of survival and love and family and hope.
One woman shared about how she was diagnosed with HIV when she was in the hospital giving birth to her baby boy in the 1990s. Others talked about a changing landscape – of learning of their status from the curt announcement from a doctor, in a time when supportive programs didn’t exist and the media’s images of HIV and AIDS were confusing and scary. Of the evolution of advocacy and improved treatments, of having and raising healthy kids, of living long and full lives themselves.
“It’s no longer a death sentence,” said Brenda Simmons, a former CWAP client who now works at the center. “People are now living long lives with HIV.” Brenda is mobilizing long-term survivors to be activists in the fight against HIV and AIDS: to teach preventative care and support people who have been recently diagnosed.
“The compassion means so much to us,” Brenda said to the volunteers. “I want to thank you. With Chicago Cares we see different volunteers and how people are dedicated to us. They don’t judge us. It feels so wonderful for you guys to come into our world and make us feel warm and welcome.”
Chicago Cares volunteers made a lunch of Monte Cristo sandwiches and a springtime spinach salad, then served, sat with and ate lunch with the women.
“I enjoy volunteering,” said Stephen Hong, one of the volunteers there. “I think the older you get, you tend to be self-absorbed. When you give with Chicago Cares, it brings greater meaning and joy to your life. Chicago Cares does a phenomenal job of organizing these events for busy people.”
This is what being a Chicago Cares volunteer is all about. Serving others, yes. But as we serve, we also meet new people and learn about their lives. We see that people we might think are different from us at first, aren’t so different at all. We all share hopes for our families, our friends, our city. We grow in compassion and understanding. We’re actively changing the culture of our city to one where instead of dividing, we’re uniting to root for each other. And that’s the best volunteering outcome of all.