You’ve Got a Friend


BAOVolunteers, clients, and employees of Birmingham AIDS Outreach share their stories to celebrate the organization’s 30th anniversary.

Written by Lindsey Lowe Osborne

Portraits by Beau Gustafson

 

There’s an old gray building that sits on the corner of Second Avenue South and 32nd Street. There’s no sign declaring what goes on inside and the building itself is easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. It blends in. But as nondescript as its home may be, the work that goes down inside of the building is anything but. That building is home to Birmingham AIDS Outreach, the first-ever AIDS service organization in Alabama.

Born in 1985, BAO hit the scene a few years after AIDS did, back before doctors even understood what they were trying to cure. “There was nothing available. There was so much stigma that sometimes doctors and hospitals would turn people away,” says Jamie Whitehurst, director of development at BAO. “It was pretty much a death sentence.” And it was a polarizing one. As thousands of people—mostly, at first, white, gay men—were diagnosed with the disease, thousands of others around the country, and many in Birmingham, stepped up as their caregivers. Whitehurst says that’s how BAO came to be: A group of Birmingham caretakers decided there needed to be a place that offered resources, including companionship, to those individuals who contracted HIV/AIDS. “Many of those white, gay men who were sick and dying had also been abandoned by their families,” Whitehurst explains. “They had no one. As that need very quickly grew, this group of people in the community decided that we needed some kind of organization. So they established BAO.”

At its conception and for several years after, BAO was strictly volunteer-run. In fact, the main facet of the organization was the “buddy program,” which paired volunteer “buddies” with persons with HIV/AIDS. From cooking to cleaning to chauffeuring, the buddies provided care that evolved as the patients’ health deteriorated. Throughout the early 90s, as AIDS ravaged the country (according to aids.gov, the disease was the leading killer of Americans aged 22–40 in 1994), the buddies at BAO loved and cared for those who were struck in Birmingham. “The buddies did almost everything,” Whitehurst says. “They sat with them and just spent time with them. They drove them to their doctors’ offices, walked their dogs, checked their mail. Almost anything that needed to be done is what the buddies did.” He goes on to speak of some volunteers—he mentions UAB School of Public Health founder Bill Bridgers and his wife, Judy—who opened their personal homes to those afflicted. They gave them a place to go, to be cared for, and eventually, to die.

About a decade after its inception, the buddy program gave way to AIDS United, an AmeriCorps program put in place by Bill Clinton. The program placed AmeriCorps members in HIV-focused community-based organizations like BAO. Many AmeriCorps workers were recent college graduates looking to serve their communities; a few, Whitehurst says, are still working at BAO today, though the AmeriCorps program ended in the early 2000s. Those who worked with AmeriCorps took over for many of the buddies in the care of people with HIV/AIDS in Birmingham. “Those people who had been volunteering as buddies had been doing it for several years by this point, and many of them were around retirement age. They had seen a lot of people pass away,” says Whitehurst. “The buddies were starting to get tired. I can’t imagine being around during that time, when they would go to several funerals a week.”

By the time the AmeriCorps program ended, in the early 2000s, more federal programs were in place to support organizations like BAO. Today, BAO continues to provide resources to some 800 individuals with HIV/AIDS, as well as education and prevention services to the community. Though an HIV diagnosis is much more manageable today than it was in 1985, it still requires much care, which is where BAO comes in. The organization provides food, clothing, and transportation to individuals living with the disease, as well as support groups, healthcare, legal services, and more. There’s even a program that provides food for the pets of BAO’s clients, because pets can enhance quality of life so much. Since the beginning, BAO has believed that someday an HIV diagnosis wouldn’t be a death sentence. Whitehurst is happy to say that that day has come. “I want people to understand that you can be positive and still have a very successful, healthy, and productive life,” he says.

This year, BAO celebrates 30 years as a beacon for compassion in the Magic City. There are thousands of people who have walked through its doors and been touched in some way, as volunteers, employees, or clients. To celebrate BAO, we gathered some stories of those who have been impacted by the organization in some way. We asked them to share how BAO has made a difference in their lives, and what they’ve learned by being a part of it. We hope their stories resonate with you as much as they did with us.

 

Billie JamesBillie James

Billie James began volunteering with BAO in 1988, as the question of AIDS was turning from a problem into an epidemic. A retired writing and art teacher, she felt like she had something singular to bring to the table for those who were in the late stages of the disease. She offered to write letters for them, letters their loved ones would keep long after their deaths. “They had things they wanted to say and didn’t know how to say them,” she says.

She started by seeking permission from UAB’s 1917 Clinic (which was established in 1988 as a force to fight AIDS in Alabama), as well as BAO and the hospital at UAB. And she was aware that her presence wouldn’t always be seen as helpful or her motives as pure. “Being a white female—straight—with a family, I knew that confidentiality was going to be a big issue,” she says. “Why would I be someone that they could trust to tell their stories to? I wanted them to know I wasn’t going to exploit them. I wasn’t going to write a book. I wasn’t going to save any copies, which I never, ever did. I don’t have any evidence.” To combat that, she often went to BAO’s meetings or just hung out around the organization. “I had to let people see me, meet me,” she says. “I worked at 1917 Clinic, sitting in the waiting room. So slowly, I started gaining confidence and letting them know who I was, what I was about, and that eventually what I wanted to do was write their stories.”

Her strategies worked—James became a trusted, beloved member of the BAO community. She estimates that she wrote some 300 letters over the next decade as a BAO volunteer (she donated all of her time and efforts.) She tells me the story of the first man she worked with, who got AIDS in 1988 from a blood transfusion. “Right off the bat, he said, ‘I want you to know I’m not one of them,’” James remembers. The man had two young children and had enlisted James to help him write stories and instructions for them to have after he died. As she worked with him, getting his thoughts down on paper, she began to encourage him to visit BAO, and eventually, he did. “It was one of the most moving evenings I’ve been a part of,” she says. “When he met all of these young men who were dying just like he was, he said, ‘You know, I am one of them. There isn’t a “them.” It’s “us.”’” After she worked with patients, who were often on their deathbeds, she would hand-deliver the letters to the recipients. “Surprisingly, the letters were never angry,” she says. “I think that at that point, you’re past anger.”

James was also an advocate of AIDS education; alongside other BAO volunteers and staff members, she went into schools to teach young people about the ways AIDS could be transmitted, as well as the ways it could not. “We told them what being HIV positive meant and how to protect themselves,” she says. “And how they didn’t need to be afraid to touch someone who had been diagnosed. At the beginning, it was such a mystery that nobody had any idea exactly what it was. When it finally broke and became so widespread, we realized we needed to go into schools. And some schools were asking BAO, ‘What do we need to be telling them?’” Her other contributions include preparing food for BAO clients and working with her Episcopal priest to take communion to those afflicted, among many other things. She talked to those close to dying about what they wanted to do with their bodies (at that time, there was only one cemetery in Jefferson County that would bury people who had AIDS.) Twice, she buried people, since their families wanted nothing to do with them. “One young man and I went together and bought the pot that he wanted his ashes in. When he was cremated, I put him in the seat of my car, put a seatbelt around the pot, and he and I drove to Anniston,” she says. “Together with the priest, I dug a hole there, and we had our own ceremony.”

James is clear that if anyone benefitted from her involvement in the organization and the AIDS community as a whole, it was her. She shares that when she had to step back from heavy involvement, when her husband was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1997, many of the people whom she had helped (including many significant others and family members of AIDS patients) came to her rescue, bringing food, encouragement, prayers—whatever she needed, they offered. And she realized then that they’d taught her something important: how to say good-bye. “[Because I’d been] helping to empower patients by talking of palliative care and openly discussing death and planning for it, I was more effectively capable in accepting and dealing with the death of my own husband,” she says.

 

Lawayne ChildreyLawayne Childrey

Lawayne Childrey’s battle with HIV/AIDS began before he was ever diagnosed. In 1991, when his cousin, Cheryl, discovered she had AIDS after a string of unexplainable illnesses, Childrey was shocked. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I know Cheryl couldn’t have done half the things that I have done,’” Childrey says. “She was everything you’d want your sister to be. I thought, ‘If she can get HIV, certainly my chances are really great.’” Cheryl’s diagnosis prompted him to go to the Alabama Dept. of Health to get tested. He says that the stigma surrounding a diagnosis was so intense that he considered parking down the street so nobody would see where he was. “I was terrified,” Childrey says. “I know people go to the health department for a number of things, but I guess in my mind, being a gay, black man, I knew if I was seen in the health department, people would know that I was there for an AIDS test. And at that time, it was taboo. It was totally taboo.”

Indeed, Childrey received a positive diagnosis. “They were surprised at my reaction, because I said, ‘OK,’” Childrey remembers. “But I think that in my heart of hearts, I had seen so many who had died by that time from the disease that I just figured, ‘Why not me?’” Childrey’s family, especially his mom, were supportive when he shared the news with them. “[My mom] told me that we would get through this together,” he remembers. “And I was very happy for that.”

And they did—for the next decade, though Childrey lost both Cheryl and his then-partner to AIDS, his disease remained manageable. In 2001, however, he went through a stressful period; he thinks it was the stress that caused his disease to turn into what they called “full-blown AIDS.” “I remember sitting in the doctor’s office and [the doctor] came in and said, ‘Looks like we have a very sick young man here,’” Childrey says. According to hiv.va.gov, normal T-cell count is between 600 and 1,500. Childrey’s T-cell count was 3. “I was well within the death zone. I should have been dead, actually. And he said, ‘We have this very sick young man here, but we’re going to put you in the hospital, and we’re going to get you better.’”

Childrey spent some six weeks in the hospital, but he did get better. After the ordeal, he decided that he didn’t want to return to the job he’d had before, at a bank. He decided instead to go back to school to become a broadcast journalist, which is what he’d always wanted to do. He enrolled, at the age of 40, in Jefferson State Community College, and he was the ideal student. But then he got sick again, since the doctors were still experimenting with which cocktail of drugs would work best for him. He missed a semester of school and was told he couldn’t re-enroll because he hadn’t met the criteria for his loans. He decided to go talk to an adviser. “This was the first time that I was open and honest about my life with anyone,” he says. “I went and told my adviser what happened, and he said, ‘Well, we’ll just give you a scholarship.’” Childrey graduated from Jeff State in 2006 with a degree in broadcast journalism.

He’s now an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist living in Nashville, Tennessee, with his partner, Ray. He’s penned a book, Peeling Back the Layers, about his experiences, which include childhood sexual abuse, drug addiction, and his HIV diagnosis (the book is available at major booksellers and Amazon, as well as through his website, lawaynechildrey.com.) Childrey says that throughout that time, BAO, which had been recommended to him by the Dept. of Health, was a beacon for him. He participated in their one-on-one counseling, support groups, and more. “I felt so comfortable there. I felt like I got the love and support I needed,” he says. “Even when I was in school and not working, BAO was a lifeline for me.” He says they helped him work through why he was making decisions that weren’t great, and it helped put him on the path to where he is today.

“[I realized] that I was supposed to be doing something greater than what I was doing,” he says. “And I could have been anything I wanted to be, but I knew I had a story to tell. So I left a legacy.”

 

Stephanie AckersStephanie Ackers

Stephanie Ackers, a case management supervisor at BAO, came to the organization to find a change after losing her mother to cancer in 2007. She contacted BAO executive director Karen Musgrove and found that a position had just opened up. Ackers stepped in—that was nearly seven years ago—and hasn’t looked back since.

She spends her days tending to the needs of BAO’s clients. From providing them with food, transportation, and clothes should they need it, to offering support and counseling as they deal with their diagnoses, Ackers is in the trenches on a day-to-day basis. “[I’m] busy!” she says. “I am one of four social workers. We handle appointments and walk-ins. In addition to a daily caseload, I am also responsible for maintaining inventory, handling any issues with clients, reviewing paperwork, and whatever else that may arise. We could possibly see up to 25 clients per social worker depending on the need of the client.”

While it can be draining—the nonprofit world often can be—Ackers says it’s a rewarding job. “The most challenging part of my position is empowering the clients to understand their self-worth and not allowing them to be defined by their diagnosis,” she says. “The mission of BAO is to enhance the quality of life for people living with HIV/AIDS, at-risk, affected individuals, and the LGBTQ community through outreach, age-appropriate prevention education, and supportive services. My personal mission of meeting clients where they are in life, while being loving and supportive, complements the mission of the agency.”

You can imagine that she’s seen a lot. She’s seen clients who didn’t want to carry on; but she’s also seen clients who couldn’t afford their prescriptions find help at BAO. “We have a client who is currently going through chemotherapy and at times has issues with mobility. He did not have the income to purchase a walker. BAO assisted this client with a Rollator and he was very thankful for the assistance,” she shares. “The best part of my job is being able to truly help a client with a need, whether it’s providing food, finding housing, assisting with medicine and clothing, or simply just listening to them vent.”

As far as we’ve come on the HIV/AIDS front, Ackers says she believes there’s hope for more in the future: “I pray that a cure will be found. HIV is not a death sentence anymore, and clients are living much longer than ever before. Medicines have been improved by leaps and bounds, but my greatest hope for my clients is that they can one day live HIV-free, free from the stigma, and free from all that hinders them from living a ‘normal’ life.”

 

Jan ConwayJan Conway

“It was a huge growing experience for all of us all the way around,” says Jan Conway. “And life lessons that we won’t forget, to say nothing of the friendships we developed that we’ll have forever.” Conway held many roles during her time as both a BAO volunteer and an employee. In the early 90s, she came to BAO looking for a place to pour her energy into. BAO was a good fit—Conway’s son, Michael, died of AIDS in 1988. “That was 27 years ago, and I knew nothing about it. I was as terrified as my son was,” she says. “But after being educated and learning more about the disease and the precautions to take, I had no problem with taking care of him.” A few years later, Conway called BAO and asked if they needed help.

She began as a buddy in the buddy program and eventually became the head of the program. She joined the board and was the board secretary and board chair and went on to fill the position of finance director of the organization when it came available. Even after she stepped down from that position, she remained involved in fundraising events. “Becoming involved with BAO taught me how naïve and how uneducated I was about different people and different things,” she says. “That’s probably been the most beneficial thing to me, because now I am totally accepting. Well, I’ve just become a much better person.”

For Conway, that’s an important lesson, because she experienced the stigma of AIDS when Michael was diagnosed. She says most of her friends and neighbors refused to have anything to do with her; she and her family went through his sickness and death alone. “We had no one,” she says. “As to why they did that, I think the greatest thing was sheer terror of the disease. The extreme isolation that we went through was unacceptable; nobody should have to grieve someone having an illness—to say nothing of death—and be so shunned.”

She, of course, went on to experience that stigma via the clients at BAO for years. She tells stories of people who said that their parents allowed them to stay in their basements, but refused to let them come upstairs. “They would put their food on the top step of the stairs and then close and lock the door again,” she says. Those people, she says, felt lucky that they still had places to stay, because so many patients didn’t. “That was what was so beautiful about so many of the early volunteers: They felt it so acutely and deeply that they would take in some of those people,” she says. “There were so many volunteers that went way over above and beyond.”

Conway explains that she and the other people involved with BAO found that the most important part of their caring for people with HIV/AIDS was simply that—caring. It was the little things, she remembers, that made BAO such a welcome place, like the fact that there was always a basket of apples in the front room for anyone to take. “Somebody thought to make sure that anybody who came in had something to eat if they were hungry,” she says, though who it was, she doesn’t know. “I know that’s such a teensy thing, but those little touches meant so much to those people.”

She is adamant that her involvement is not noble—she says she simply needed to help. “It’s just wrong to not do something once you’ve become aware,” she says. “I just don’t see how you can continue living your life in the same way in the middle of all of that. But that’s not a noble thing—that’s just a humanity thing.”

 

Ruth DeRamus

When Ruth DeRamus was diagnosed with HIV in 2006, she says she was in denial. She’d heard it was a young, gay white man’s disease, but there she was—a 59-year-old African-American woman with a positive diagnosis. “As I have lived with this disease, I think the outcome of a person living with this disease really depends on their attitude,” she says. “I accepted the fact that I was not living with AIDS, but AIDS had come to take up residence in my body, and at my house, I rule.”

For her, BAO was a place of resources. “I was talking to some people, and they shared that there was a place I could go,” she says. “Not only could I get help with food, but I could get help with medications and gas vouchers. So I went and I signed up. It has been a great help to me.” DeRamus shares that at the time of her diagnosis, after two months in the hospital, she’d lost a lot of weight. Her doctors encouraged her to drink nutritional supplements to put some back on, but she found they were expensive. At BAO, she could get a case of 48 for free. It’s those kinds of things that helped get her back on her feet. Now, she contributes back to BAO as much as she can—she was recently dropping a clothes donation off there when a girl stopped and asked her if she happened to have a coat in her pile. “It’s just things like that,” she says. “It’s knowing that there is a service available where people can go and get help.”

More than that, though, DeRamus shares that BAO was a place where she could walk in and let out a sigh of relief, for everyone there already knew about the diagnosis—and nobody judged her for it. “It’s hard to go somewhere that doesn’t understand,” she says. “You have to give your story out over and over again. It really helps when you can go to a facility where everybody knows already, and they’re compassionate.”

DeRamus often speaks at events—at BAO fundraisers, colleges, high schools, and more—to share her story and how she believes the perception of HIV/AIDS needs to change. She believes the most integral aspect of that change is dialogue within communities, so she steps up to start it. “I think it’s changing a little bit,” she says. “But it’s very slow. There are times you’re going to feel uncomfortable about yourself.

“And I wonder: ‘Is me going out and telling my story—Is it helping?’” she says.

For more information on how you can contribute to the efforts of BAO, and for details on their 30 Year Gala, taking place on March 21, visit birminghamaidsoutreach.org.

2 Responses to “You’ve Got a Friend”

  1. Thank You for publishing this story! As a BAO employee who sees this everyday and can sometimes feel “numb” to how special BAO is – – this article brought me to tears as I was having my morning coffee. It’s so timely for our 30 year anniversary and I can’t thank you enough!

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