Ryan Freeland. Throughout my life, I always heard about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. When I was younger, I was frightened of the disease because I believed I could contract it simply by touching someone or by having my blood exposed to the open air. Obviously, I was very misinformed. While I did not know any factual information about the disease at the time, I still felt like I was being called to assist in the disease’s treatment and prevention. This calling was reaffirmed for me once I completed my Alternative Spring Break trip to the Samaritan House in Fort Worth, Texas.
I always had a strange attraction to HIV/AIDS. I did not know anyone living with the disease and I did not even know a lot about it. I did know that HIV/AIDS greatly affected and stigmatized the gay community. I did know that this stigmatization was unjustifiable. While I did not “come out” until August 2014, I knew that my connection to the disease was because of my identity and how it has been shaped by the stereotypes and stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.
As I began to fully accept my identity as a part of my life, I became fascinated with health and sexuality. Overall, I want to help establish further social and health equity throughout the world. Even with this ideal and my strong interest in HIV/AIDS, I knew that in order to be truly involved in the HIV/AIDS movement, I needed to work alongside and learn from people living with HIV. Therefore, I applied to the Alternative Spring Break program and was accepted to the Samaritan House project in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Samaritan House, or “SamHouse” as it’s called by many of the residents and faculty, is a center that provides housing and resources for individuals who are homeless and living with HIV. Anyone is able to receive assistance from the SamHouse once they pass the entry approval process (i.e. paperwork, case management, etc.). The program is absolutely amazing and the faculty are probably the most welcoming and loving people I have ever met in a work setting. Noticing this truly affirmed my desire to work in the field of public health and HIV/AIDS.
During our week at the Samaritan House, we were educated on everything that goes into combatting HIV/AIDS through a social ecological perspective. From talking to social workers about case management to learning about HIV/AIDS from professors to playing Bingo with residents, we truly saw and heard everything that goes into the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS at SamHouse. While we did assist with an assortment of projects, our main task was interacting withresidents and learning from their experiences. Even though I have read about HIV/AIDS stigma in several classes, I discovered just how little I really understood. Being denied access to employment, access to medication, and access to housing were just some of the unjust experiences that residents recollected. No one deserves to be discriminated against because of this infection and no one should have to be subjugated to such disrespect.
From my week at SamHouse, I can to appreciate the complexity of HIV and my passion for this work. While I will not be in the biological sector studying the virus’s actions, I will assist through the social and behavioral implications of the disease. I will never forget the stories of the residents at SamHouse and they will always act as a guide for me as I enter into the field of Public Health.