Emotional attachment for fighting AIDS


For the Times

Ever since he was a teen­ager, Phil­adelphi­an Jon Gar­vey has been an eager vo­lun­teer. At 15, it was the Red Cross, and all through high school he signed up for com­munity ser­vice pro­jects.

Then, in his early 20s, Gar­vey be­came in­volved with Ac­tion­AIDS. Now, 19 years later, he is still a ded­ic­ated vo­lun­teer.

“There’s so much love and com­pas­sion in this pro­gram,” said Gar­vey, now 46. “Every­one is so ded­ic­ated, and they do phe­nom­en­al work.”

He’s re­fer­ring to the “buddy” pro­gram that pairs vo­lun­teers with people who are HIV-pos­it­ive or have AIDS. The vo­lun­teer bud­dies provide sup­port and com­pan­ion­ship to these cli­ents.

Gar­vey first con­nec­ted with Ac­tion­AIDS in 1988. “That’s when I came out of the closet for the first time,” he ex­plained. “It was dan­ger­ous to be ‘out’ be­cause people were so afraid of AIDS.”

He, too, was frightened. “I’d had un­pro­tec­ted sex be­cause I didn’t know any bet­ter,” he said. “So I edu­cated my­self about AIDS, got tested, and to my re­lief I was neg­at­ive. And then I wanted to do something to help my com­munity.”

He read about Ac­tion­AIDS and de­cided to vo­lun­teer. The first step was an in­ter­view con­duc­ted by an ex­per­i­enced buddy.  “I had a very pos­it­ive feel­ing right from the start,” he re­called.

Next came four days of train­ing that in­cluded everything from learn­ing the his­tory of HIV and AIDS to role-play­ing vari­ous situ­ations that the vo­lun­teer bud­dies might en­counter.

“By the end of train­ing, I was very hope­ful,” he said. “I felt this was a good place to put my en­ergy.”

Gar­vey’s first buddy was Richard, who was HIV-pos­it­ive. At first, Gar­vey spoke to him by phone and saw him once a month, which is the re­quire­ment. “This was the ‘get­ting to know you’ phase,” he said. 

But soon the two be­came closer — and in part for an un­ex­pec­ted reas­on.

“I found out that one of my closest friends was dia­gnosed with HIV, and Richard was there to listen and to tell me what to ex­pect,” re­lated Gar­vey. “So it came full circle; he was now the one help­ing me.”

They began shar­ing more activ­it­ies to­geth­er. They went out to din­ner or to the movies. They went to the Phil­adelphia Flower Show and oth­er events.  Gar­vey also drove Richard to see his moth­er, who lived in Wilm­ing­ton.

Sev­er­al years after they met, Richard’s med­ic­al con­di­tion worsened.  He de­veloped le­sions on the brain.

“It’s rare and it meant he star­ted los­ing mo­tor skills,” ex­plained Gar­vey.

It also meant he now had AIDS. When his con­di­tion be­came even more ser­i­ous, Richard moved to the Cal­cutta House, a fa­cil­ity for people with AIDS. Gar­vey vis­ited him every even­ing, com­ing to see him straight from his full-time job.

“He had be­come a very dear friend to me,” said Gar­vey.

In 2002, his friend was near the end of his life.  “He looked like a stroke pa­tient,” Gar­vey said. “It was dif­fi­cult for him to talk. I tried to do what I could to make his life peace­ful and to help him die with dig­nity.”

As the end neared, Richard slipped in­to a coma, said Gar­vey, who was there when his friend took his last breath.

The next day, the Cal­cutta House held a me­mori­al ser­vice, as it does when any res­id­ent dies, and Gar­vey at­ten­ded.  Later, Richard’s moth­er and broth­er held a me­mori­al ser­vice in Wilm­ing­ton, and again, Gar­vey was there.

Mean­while, there was an out­pour­ing of sup­port for Gar­vey from the Ac­tion­AIDS net­work. “Every­one in my buddy group called to of­fer sup­port,” he re­called.

They all un­der­stood that this was a ma­jor loss.  “And I still grieve for him some­times, es­pe­cially on birth­days and the an­niversary of his death,” he said.

By the time of Richard’s death, Gar­vey was not only a buddy but a buddy team lead­er, which su­per­vises new vo­lun­teers.

But after Richard died, he needed time out and took a leave of ab­sence. When Gar­vey re­turned a year later, he was paired with an­oth­er buddy — but this one didn’t work out.

He took an­oth­er break, then re­turned and re­sumed his role as a buddy team lead­er.  And he waited for a suit­able new pair­ing.

It came in 2008 when he was paired with James. He was HIV-pos­it­ive, but with no symp­toms. “He goes to the hos­pit­al for checkups and takes his med­ic­a­tions,” said Gar­vey. “But it’s not an is­sue we need to dis­cuss.”

James was born with cereb­ral palsy and walks with a slight limp. He’s a seni­or at Widen­er, a school for spe­cial-needs stu­dents. His moth­er died when he was young and his fath­er is not in his life, so he lives with his grand­moth­er.

But since 2008, Gar­vey has had a key role in James’ life.  They bon­ded quickly and eas­ily.

“Whenev­er we get to­geth­er, we al­ways have a good time,” said Gar­vey. “And any little thing I do, he ap­pre­ci­ates so much.”

Be­cause of their age dif­fer­ence — James is 21 and Gar­vey is 46 — “it’s al­most like I’m a sur­rog­ate fath­er,” said Gar­vey.

And this “sur­rog­ate fath­er” is as proud as any dad. James is a mem­ber of Widen­er’s wheel­chair bas­ket­ball team (even though he doesn’t need a wheel­chair off the court, he learned to use one while play­ing) and Gar­vey at­tends all his games.

“At one tour­na­ment, he ac­tu­ally made a bas­ket for the first time,” said Gar­vey. “And I cried like an idi­ot be­cause I was so proud of him.”

Last year, Gar­vey at­ten­ded James’ ju­ni­or prom. “I loved watch­ing him, he was the life of the party,” he said.

Now he’s look­ing for­ward to see­ing James at his seni­or prom. “I’m rent­ing a tux; I’m go­ing to his house to take pho­tos,” Gar­vey said. “And I’ll drive him and his date to the prom.”

And, of course, he’ll be there for James’ gradu­ation later in June.

Un­like Gar­vey’s first buddy, Richard, James’ health is stable and he hasn’t de­veloped any med­ic­al prob­lems. So Gar­vey can en­joy his role as buddy and sur­rog­ate fath­er.

“I feel very pro­tect­ive of him be­cause he’s a spe­cial-needs young man,” he said.

Oth­ers have no­ticed his de­vo­tion to James. “People praise me and say, ‘You’re do­ing great things for him,’ but he’s changed my life, too,” Gar­vey noted. “I look at this kid who’s had such a dif­fi­cult life. And yet he’s so per­son­able, warm, funny and caring. People are just drawn to him.”

Over the years, Gar­vey has be­come in­volved in oth­er AIDS-re­lated activ­it­ies. He par­ti­cip­ates in the AIDS Walk each year. And every Au­gust since 1995, he has been a vo­lun­teer for one-week stints at Camp Bright Feath­ers, a camp for young­sters who are HIV-in­fec­ted or are im­pacted in some way by HIV or AIDS.

But Ac­tion­AIDS is Gar­vey’s ma­jor vo­lun­teer activ­ity. And he makes time for this des­pite his full-time job as a busi­ness ana­lyst for Amer­ic­an Ex­press. His of­fice is based in Mount Laurel, N.J., so he also has a daily com­mute from his home to the of­fice.

But that doesn’t stop him from faith­fully at­tend­ing Ac­tion­AIDS meet­ings and see­ing James as of­ten as pos­sible.

The vo­lun­teer activ­ity that began 19 years ago is now an in­teg­ral part of his life.

“It’s been more re­ward­ing than I ever ex­pec­ted,” re­flec­ted Gar­vey.  “I’ve had two people come in­to my life who have en­riched it so much. I feel I’ve gained much more from them than I’ve giv­en.”

More about Ac­tion­Aids …

Ac­tion­AIDS is at 1216 Arch St., sixth floor; call 215-981-0088. For de­tailed info, vis­it the Web site at www.ac­tion­aids.org.

It in­cludes in­form­a­tion about vo­lun­teer activ­it­ies; you also can con­tact Jay John­son, co­ordin­at­or of vo­lun­teers, at 215-981-3324.

An HIV test­ing and coun­sel­ing cen­ter is at 1026 Arch St., of­fer­ing free walk-in test­ing. Check the Web site for hours.


You can reach at rrovner@aol.com.

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