AnnieRay Magsalin, the Director of Operations of Live Forward, has heard all the stereotypical comments regarding HIV.

“It is a death sentence.” “You can only catch it from being gay.”

Even though she spends her time working at Live Forward, she said it can be emotionally difficult for her.

I had a minor express to me how they just wanted a hug and people would jump away from them,”  Magsalin said. “I was just distraught to hear a minor tell me a hug [from people].”

While she used to travel for work in the healthcare field, she said she was nervous before coming to Live Forward. 

“While the work is very stressful,” Magsalin said, “with the co-workers, the clients, and the interns I can always count on them.”

For over a decade, Live Forward volunteers/workers have dedicated their time to helping those in Athens who are in need of housing, food or counseling because of their HIV status.  Providing 2,320 services, mainly including case management, food pantry and mental health, the agency has served 179 people who were infected with HIV, and 135 people that were infected by HIV, according to Cassandra Bray of Live Forward.

 

Cassandra Bray is the executive director of Live Forward. (Photo/Chanel Williams)

Cassandra Bray, Executive Director, has spent 19 years working at Live Forward. Bray started her working in the Fulton County Health Department before coming to Athens. 

“I kinda wanted a change,” Bray said.

What attracted her to Live Forward was how small the agency was; however, they still did a lot for their community. 

I felt the potential that it could do more and I like how it had a home, grassroots feeling,” Bray said.

While they may seem very small, their contribution has impacted a lot of people in the community.

Live Forward serves up to 10 counties in Northern Georgia, including Oconee and Oglethorpe. They have served up to 460 people during 2015-2016. Even though they help with people of all ages, 57% of the people they serve fall in between the ages of 15-24.

What is HIV? 

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a sexually transmitted disease that weakens a person’s immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection; however, it can be transmitted in other ways beyond sexual. No cure has been found yet, but it can be treated with proper medication. In Georgia, there are about 560 new cases of HIV each year. 

According to Jam News, there are 8,000 people that are infected with HIV in Georgia, and only 86% of them are aware of it and are undergoing treatment, while 92% of those that are seeking treatment have recovered from the virus. 

It can be contracted through various ways like vaginal, anal sex or through sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injected equipment. Bray said Clarke County has 1,129 HIV cases as of 2021. As of 2021, the leading cases of those with HIV are Black/African-American cisgendered males between the ages of 50 and 59. 

Life Beyond a Diagnosis  

Craig Gustafson is a 66-year old-man who was born in Sweden and came to the United States when he was 15. In 1984, he was diagnosed with HIV, and has been living with it for the last 40 years. 

“[The year 1984] was brutal, I had loss a whole bunch of friends, and I got a rare type of pneumonia called Pneumocystis, and you have to have HIV to get that breed of pneumonia and it was deadly,” said Gustafson.

While the disease challenges his health daily, he expresses that he is happy with his life. 

“[HIV] is like diabetes, there are still people that are sick and not well from it, but for me it’s a hassle. I lived with it my whole life, so it’s an exhausting experience, it gives you arteritis and does horrible skin damage, but it’s not going to kill me. It’s going to irritate me to death,” said Gustafson. 

When he first heard about his diagnosis, he expressed how he was shocked; however, over the years, he grew to accept his status and chose to live his life. 

I had a partner, I got married to my wife, and then I had my son. I lived a long life, and I love it! I don’t care about what people say.”

He came to Athens years later, and started volunteering at Live Forward after he retired. He spends his time around the center, helping them gain sponsors and transitional housing. He encourages other people to help volunteer and continues to spread the word about HIV and educating people to stay safe.  

Continuing to Change the Stigma

But one of the biggest uphill battles is changing the stigma connected to HIV. Over 5 years ago, Bray said she came in contact with two women who refused to seek treatment over their statuses. 

“These two women had children,” Bray said. “It was like they would rather be dead than to be potentially seen at a doctor’s office getting treatment for HIV.” 

Bray said being treated for HIV at Live Forward helps clients become stabilized to their condition where they are able to live their “best lives.” 

While they do treatment at the center, there is a need for more volunteers. Magsalin said more people volunteering can impact the clients and the workers there. 

“I definitely feel like clients will be appreciated when they speak with people who are volunteers,” said Magsalin, “because they are being treated as a person instead of their status.” 

With their upcoming AIDS Walk in May, the hope is that more people can show love and support to those who have HIV. 

I hope that [People] see a better life, a better side and that’s there’s people that support [those with HIV], and that happens when you have a strong knit community. I just want people to see the side that I see in them.”

Chanel Williams is a senior majoring in Journalism at the University of Georgia. She serves as an active member of the organizations National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), and Black Theatrical Ensemble (BTE). 

 

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