Living with AIDS/HIV can be a difficult experience, and even greater if faced alone. The Reunion Project of Philadelphia seeks to make sure anyone diagnosed with HIV or living with AIDS doesn’t go through it by themselves.

The Reunion Project of Philadelphia was planned by a local committee of LGBT and HIV-serving advocacy organizations serving Philadelphia and support from The National Reunion Project. The national movement for Project Reunion was founded in 2015 by Matt Sharp and Jeff Berry. The event is a platform for those who are currently afflicted with HIV or have developed AIDS. According to Test Positive Aware Network, The Reunion Project is a “safe space for HIV survivors to come together” and tell their stories.

Waheedah Shabazz-El, a founding member of Positive Women’s Network, wants anyone diagnosed positively with HIV to have a place they feel comfortable to talk. “One of the things the Reunion Project is designed to do is bring [HIV survivors] out of isolation [from] their depression or PTSD,” said Shabazz-El.

A lot of individuals don’t want to come forward once diagnosed. This increases their odds of isolating themselves from a community that can help them.

Heshie Zinman, a HIV survivor, founder and active board member of The LGBT Elder Initiative, can relate with a sentiment of isolation and fear.

After learning he was HIV positive Zinman often found himself anxious when speaking to others. “When I would talk to somebody about it I’d say, I’m okay, but I would just be shaking. It was a nervous reaction,” said Zinman.

Facing one’s own mortality is frightening, and no one should go through it alone. This is the central theme of the Reunion Project.
“Having people self identify as long term survivors helps. [The Reunion Project] gives people a way to reunite as humans. It’s a connector,” said Shabazz-El.

By providing a space where everyone is HIV positive, survivors feel inclined to pass on their stories and experiences. “They have an amazing community to support them,” said Shabazz-El.

Learning to age well with HIV/AIDS can be just as important as talking about what you’re going through.
“I have always been conscious of what I put into my body, sometimes I haven’t. I always took care of myself, had enough rest, ate well, exercised,” said Zinman. Just like any lifestyle change you aren’t going to be perfect, but the effort is necessary.

Living with HIV means more than just taking your medicine regimen.You have to be mindful of the food you eat and the amount of stress you put on your body. Your day to day can affect your wellness and Zinman does his best to make sure his days are mostly positive.
“I have always worked, I have always been passionate about social justice, advocacy and activism. I have always worked at creating change, creating a more just universe,” said Zinman.

Passions can help keep you going but isn’t the easiest task in the face of stigma. This is another facet The Reunion Project works to change. By arming survivors with facts the hope is to pass on the education to the community.

There are a lot of stigmas associated with HIV due to the different ways it can contracted. There are different communities among survivors who are targeted in different ways. According to Shabazz-E, “women make up 64% of the global pandemic and 29% in the United States of America.” HIV/AIDS is not just a problem among gay men.

“How a gay white man copes with is HIV may look different than how an African American male or female [copes]. And then there’s how people assign blame to someone with HIV: because of lifestyle like being gay, or an injection drug user,” said ZInman.
Not everyone contracts HIV through intercourse, and not everyone is gay who has AIDS, or does drugs. By allowing people to come together they can make their voices louder so the outside community can better understand people who are HIV positive.

The Reunion Project is different than most seminars. There will be presenters giving speeches, however they are not the main focus.
“There is no key note speaker. The important thing about the Reunion Project is within all the sessions anyone who speaks [invited speaker] has a brief time to speak because we really want the folks who are in the sessions to contribute, to talk about things that are important to them,” said Zinman.While there will be presentations on research and new drugs, the focus remains on living as a long-term survivor of HIV .

There were many people who advocated for the progress of HIV/AIDS but did not see their labors come to fruition. Zinman hopes to be alive long enough to see the cure for HIV/AIDS.
For some the event signifies grander sentiments. “The Reunion Project to me signifies hope, future and possibility,” said Zinman

The Reunion Project Philadelphia will be held on June 3rd at The Church of St. Luke & The Epiphany. The program starts at 10:00 AM and goes until 6:00 PM. Lunch will be served. To register call (215) 985 – 4448, ext. 200, or register online.

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