‘A body at rest stays at rest… unless acted upon by some other force.’
What does Newton’s First Law of Motion have to do with Desert AIDS Project, you ask?
Simply put, many of D.A.P.’s clients say they’re “stuck.” They want healthier lives, to be more outgoing, and to accomplish some long-held goals. But getting started or sustaining momentum often seemed impossible. It sometimes seemed easier to resign themselves to being bodies at rest.
We like to think that Newton would recognize Jim Sherman, D.A.P. Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and Valerio Iovino, our Career Building Coordinator, as a collective force spurring inert clients to motion. The two established the Success Building Class at D.A.P., a 10-week course that encourages students to get moving.
“Valerio and I both realized that a lot of depression and general anxiety could be alleviated if clients simply had something meaningful to do with their lives,” Jim says. “I’d already found out that depression and anxiety among my clients, who had taken Valerio’s Career Building workshop, improved once they found jobs or volunteer positions.” In 2015, the Career Building Program helped find jobs for 104 of those D.A.P. serves. In addition, three clients now have internships, another 30 are volunteering, and three more have returned to school.
Jim believes that success is achieved when students find “a mission” and then narrow that down to goals and the action steps needed to reach those goals. Jim and Valerio also encourage clients to recognize barriers that can get in the way of reaching their goals, so they can plan a route around those barriers.
“Clients are encouraged to be introspective and ask, ‘What do I want to create in my life?’ while knowing that the entire class supports them in their process for accomplishing that vision,” Valerio says. “Even when they’re tempted to stop when they hit a barrier, the group holds each other accountable so they can push through and reach their goals.”
Students had been so successful at reaching those goals they asked that the class be extended to 10 weeks from its original eight. “Guys were getting back into the gym, creating art again, cleaning and organizing their homes, arranging class outings, socializing, and even dating again,” Valerio says. “They wanted to continue the momentum.”
Inertia was a “new normal” for class member Michael Patton and seemed a natural response to being terribly ill for long stretches of time. Michael – a painter, teacher, and actor – had been hospitalized eight times in one year, often for weeks at a time. He’d undergone several rounds of energy-sapping chemotherapy, while choosing a string of boyfriends who treated him badly.
“I had a negative operating system deep in my soul and had to maneuver around it just to participate in the class,” Michael said, who earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Georgia’s LaGrange College in 1989. He taught for the Troup County School System in Georgia, as well as in the Los Angeles and Palm Springs public school systems. Before teaching, he was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and performed in commercials, TV shows, theater, and quite a few student films at the American Film Institute in L.A.
But a crystal meth addiction, illness, poor diet, and missed dosages of meds sidelined Michael. “I was a perfect storm for death,” Michael says. “But even after I began to heal, I felt like I couldn’t get off the ground with some of the changes I wanted to make in my life.” So he joined the Success Class where addressing self-esteem issues is also a powerful part of each session.
In the class, Michael was encouraged to set S.M.A.R.T. goals – those that are Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-based. He chose returning to the gym and practicing his artwork every day as his initial goals. Resuming a teaching career is a longer-range goal that depends on Michael maintaining a healthy T-cell count.
Michael is painting again and had work placed in the Desert AIDS Project Collective Art Show in its Cathedral City gallery. He keeps his teaching credentials current and his social life is a lot healthier than it once was. Today’s new normal even includes a boyfriend who “treats me like a prince,” Michael says with a smile.
Dating again was just as important for long-term HIV survivor Rick Scott as returning to art was for Michael. “I felt like my life was stuck,” says Rick, 64. “I joined the class with aspirations of getting unstuck. And it worked. I’m dating someone again, which is great, because I seem to function better when I have a little romance in my life.”
Personal relationships are a big deal to Rick, 64, because he’s lost so many people in his life. The former San Franciscan believes he contracted the virus in 1977, even before the first diagnoses in 1981. The 1980s and 1990s were spent watching friends and lovers die … losing all of his gay male friends, more than 100 people. “I buried four lovers. That’s one of the reasons I moved here,” Rick said. “It was an escape from San Francisco and all those ghosts.”
Some 20 years later, Rick had his heart broken, rendering him lonely, unemployed, and sliding into inertia. He was neither exercising nor eating well, which is a dangerous combination for a diabetic. “I had broken up with my boyfriend a year prior and I wasn’t functioning well,” Rick says. “I like people, but I’d buried myself.”
Feeling he had to do something to break the malaise, Rick turned to the Success class for help. As things turned around, he began cycling regularly. “It helped me get over my fears,” Rick says. “I’ve never been a ‘fraidy cat’ … but this has been a weird time in my life.”
“Many of us have a hard time putting one foot in front of the other and getting things done,” says class member Findley Golod. The 63-year-old retired after 22 years at the San Francisco Department of Human Services and moved here from the Bay Area apartment he’d lived in for over 33 years. His work days were long and rigorous. His social life revolving around his job where his boss was also his best friend.
Retirement and starting fresh in a new town was “a high for a couple weeks” until the quiet set in. And Findley found that reinventing himself was not as easy as he thought. “I wasn’t making any friends. I wasn’t doing anything. I guess that’s what’s called inertia,” he says. Findley joined the Success Building Class and set simple goals: unpacking his boxes; reading again; exercising; asking someone out for coffee. He also thought about finding meaningful work.
“Group support was really helpful,” Findley says. “Knowing I had to report back to the group was very motivational.” The class held his feet to the fire if he was late or missed classes or assignments. “It was good to know that somebody gave a damn.”
Jim and Valerio supported Findley’s goal to find interesting work by connecting him with D.A.P.’s Revivals where he now volunteers at the Palm Springs store, sorting and pricing shoes. He proclaims “I look forward to Tuesday mornings, getting ready and going to Revivals.”
Michael, Rick, Findley and the other members of the Success Building Class are the proof that an active, meaningful life beats depression and inertia any day.