The Poz Café, a monthly luncheon for those living with HIV, celebrated the serving of its 25,000th meal last month.
HIV was not the topic of conversation amongst the 124 CarePartners, guests and volunteers at the luncheon, however. There were discussions about the impressive selection of bingo prizes, bonding sessions over a mutual distaste for cabbage and shared excitement over the rainbow-colored cake prepared by Kitchen and Menu Supervisor Roy DeBise.
The program, which began in 1999 and is the largest regular gathering for people living with HIV/AIDS in Southern Arizona, was developed by the Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network, or TIHAN. The group partners with three local faith communities each month to provide the volunteers and resources to put on the Poz Café. This month, it was Southside Presbyterian, Saguaro Christian and Unitarian Universalist. The luncheon is hosted at St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church.
"It's kind of magical, it really is," said Deirdre Demers, program manager for TIHAN. "I love Poz Café. It's just the most positive, supportive environment." The meal is provided to TIHAN clients, called CarePartners, once a month. It's free of charge, and is always followed by a lively bingo session, the length of which depends on how many prize donations TIHAN received for the month. This month, volunteers said they received more donations than ever. Aside from a good meal and good company, guests are also given care packages filled with products that food stamps won't cover, like toilet paper, laundry detergent, deodorant and shampoo.
"When you come to a program like this, you almost lose yourself as your HIV status," said CarePartner Jayson, who has been attending the Poz Café for about four years. "You talk about other things. You talk about life, you talk about friendships."
That's exactly the atmosphere that volunteers and TIHAN workers say they strive to provide.
"From the beginning, we wanted it not to be a soup kitchen kind of atmosphere," said Jane Perri, a volunteer at the event who was on the original board for TIHAN over 20 years ago. "We wanted it to be a luncheon."
In the beginning, TIHAN was mostly providing services to help people die positively, but the mission has changed as the medications have developed and life spans have extended.
"Today, our goal is to help them live well with HIV," Demers said.
Perri and Janet Smith, another original TIHAN volunteer, agreed that the program is an important way to bring people together that might never otherwise meet.
"I really think that the POZ Café has been one of the greatest forces to break up the stigma," Smith said.
She was mostly talking about the stigma "little old ladies" like herself might have against HIV, but she was also talking about the stigma the HIV community might have of religious groups not being accepting, or wary of people with the diagnosis.
"It shows the CarePartners that all church ladies are not crazy, and it's shown our church people that the CarePartners are just people," Perri said. "There's no 'us and them.' It's just us, having a meal together."
Jayson said he was initially timid about attending the event, not yet comfortable with being public about his HIV status. But he said he's past that now, thanks in part to the community he's connected with through TIHAN.
"It's the people," he said. "The people are loving and kind and compassionate and very, very accepting... they truly love us, and we love them because of that."
The volunteers, who were milling around serving food, calling out bingo numbers and visiting with CarePartners who doubled as old friends, were glowing with just as much joy as the CarePartners. For some, it's because they connect personally with TIHAN's cause. Smith's son died of HIV a few years before TIHAN was created. Volunteer Catherine Yordani lost three close friends to the disease.
"I promised them it wouldn't be in vain," she said.
The Poz Café serves around 60 to 90 meals to CarePartners, their guests and volunteers each month—and even more in November and December. In a TIHAN Satisfaction Survey of CarePartners, 84.4 percent of attendees said that the Poz Café helps them feel connected to other people, and 81.8 percent said they feel good about themselves after attending the Poz Café.
"Being accepted and laughing and having fun and talking is better than any pill they can take, practically," Smith said.