Here's a story about Maralyn doing well in Oregon....HIV-positive volunteers clean up Portland Park Blocks, hoping visibility helps others
by Abby Haight, The Oregonian Maralyn Gill, holding her grandson, Elijah, and Rachel Pobi (center) take part in a rally in the South Park Blocks before Project 150+ got under way Saturday. Dozens of HIV-positive people and their supporters picked up litter and scrubbed graffiti as part of the statewide Take Care of Oregon Days celebrating the state's sesquicentennial.
Rachel Pobi almost died before she finally rejected the shame of living with AIDS.
The 49-year-old from Vancouver hoped to save others from that heartbreak, perhaps even from death -- by picking up garbage Saturday in Portland's South Park Blocks.
"I'm doing this for people who are still isolated by the stigma," said Pobi, who was diagnosed at 26 and was close to death a decade ago when she started a new drug regimen. "I was so tired of keeping a secret. It was so liberating to come out."
In a unique turn on a statewide sesquicentennial program, Pobi and about 70 volunteers who are HIV-positive spread through the bustling Park Blocks, scrubbing graffiti and plucking cigarette butts, to show their love for Oregon and their determination to educate and dispel myths about AIDS.
Across the state, hundreds of volunteers picked up litter, pulled weeds and restored habitat Saturday as part of Take Care of Oregon Days, a birthday present to the state in its 150th anniversary year.
The Park Blocks cleanup -- Project 150+ -- was organized by Cascade AIDS Project. Volunteers, who included friends, family and community members, wore blaze-red T-shirts. Passers-by were handed cards that read, in part: "I am an Oregonian. I positively love this place!"
The volunteers -- including gay men; mothers and grandmothers; and two members of the charitable Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, their faces painted white, eyebrows arched over rainbow-hued eye shadow and glitter, everywhere -- worked through the morning, their bright shirts standing out among the farmers market/tourist/walking throngs enjoying a hot, sunny day.
Organizers said visibility and education are needed at a time when 1.1 million people in the U.S. live with HIV and more than 56,000 people are infected by HIV yearly.
"If I can influence even one person to get tested, to practice safe sex, just to talk about it, it will be a successful day," said Eric Shaffer of Portland, who helped plan the event but decided only at the last minute to participate.
Shaffer, 39, became one of Oregon's 7,000 HIV-positive cases a little more than a year ago when pneumonia sent him to the hospital. He attended a Cascade AIDS Project class to learn to talk to others about his status but worried about telling potential employers, co-workers and friends.
He found that secrecy can break the spirit.
"I've never been a flag-waver, 'Hey, I'm gay! Hey, I'm HIV-positive!'" Shaffer said. "But I've talked to so many people who don't talk about it, who feel stigma, who lock themselves at home because they're afraid."
After grappling with disclosure when she was diagnosed more than six years ago, Maricela Berumen of Portland made a dramatic choice.
She joined the HIV Stops with Me campaign. Her face and story appeared on billboards.
"I didn't want to be one more number -- I wanted to be out representing in the community," the 33-year-old mother of four said. "This disease doesn't kill us. Ignorance does."
A community health professional with Cascade AIDS Project, Berumen joined the litter cleanup "so the community can see the different faces that HIV has."
Many told stories of pain -- and pride.
Moureen Rosera, 53, of Portland learned she was HIV-positive five years ago.
"This is the first time I've been able to be out and say it without crying," she said. "Tolerance is something we all need to learn. It's never too young to learn. Knowledge is power."
Maralyn Gill, 53, of Portland lost her restaurant in Belize when she was diagnosed in 2004. She sunk into a despair of drugs and alcohol, got sober and came down with full-blown AIDS. But the mother of three -- and grandmother of six -- regained her health and now is active with the Women of Wisdom program at the Quest Center for Integrative Health.
Gill said she hoped Portland would see the volunteers as individuals with a difficult disease -- and productive members of the community.
"We're not just takers," she said. "We're giving back, too. And we're alive."
The desire to keep others alive brought Karen Pancheau to the Park Blocks.
Pancheau of Portland learned she was HIV-positive in 1996, when her son, Tyler, came down with an infection and was diagnosed with HIV. He had been infected 14 years before, in vitro, when Pancheau received a blood transfusion.
Pancheau has never been ill and does not require medication.
"I'm a different face of HIV," the 61-year-old said.
She became a public speaker. Events such as Saturday's cleanup combat complacency about the disease, she said. Her story might jar young people who think they won't get HIV or that it isn't serious.
Pancheau knows better.
Her son lived with HIV but lost his joy in life. He killed himself in 2005 at age 23.
"I do it because I couldn't save my son," Pancheau said, fighting tears. "Maybe I can save someone else."
-- Abby Haight; firstname.lastname@example.org://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/05/hivpositive_volunteers_clean_u.html