Volunteering was nothing new. It had long been an important part of my life. Id tutored kids with learning disabilities and collected food for the homeless. But this would be my closest experience with the AIDS populationordinary people who happen to have a disease that has no cure. Thats why I chose it.
My experience with AIDS was pretty limiteddistant friends of friends, magazine articles, after-school TV specials. Id seen Rent twice. The closest Id come to an AIDS-related death was Krista White. In homeroom at my high school, she starred on Channel Ones terminal-illness awareness broadcasts. White, who had AIDS, provided occasional updates on her disease, thoughts on her emotional journey, and obstacles that she encountered. Then one day, she was gone. Just like that.
I wanted to know more. Along came this break, Pitts Alternative Spring Break program, which offers social-service alternatives to sunny Florida beaches and lazy days of relaxation. I couldnt pass it up. In its seventh year, the program, sponsored by Student Volunteer Outreach, attracted 128 students to travel everywhere from a Navajo reservation in Arizona to the heart of New York City to work on issues such as literacy, poverty, racism, hunger, homelessness, and the environment. Growing each year in opportunity and student interest, Alternative Spring Break now offers 11 different trips and has engaged over 300 students since its start in 1995.
I wasnt looking for a pat on the back, no silver medal for being nice. No, my goal was simply to deliver meals to people who needed themlike an efficient waitress in a diner full of hungry customers. I also wanted to get close to people with the disease to learn more about it, a kind of learning through osmosis. And I wanted to do something good, contribute to an organization that helps dispel myths and prejudices about a fatal disease and the people who have it. As a white middle-class female, my experience with prejudice had been minimal. That wasnt the case with people with AIDS. By doing my job well, I hoped to show simple human dignity and respect to some human beings who happened to have a disease.
Heres how it worked: Project Angel Heart serves hundreds of men, women, and children living with the disease by providing nutritious meals six days a week. My job would be to prepare breakfasts and hot lunches for the first half of the morning, then deliver them early afternoon with eight other Pitt students. Arriving for work in the morning, I would slip on a white plastic apron and head to the sink to wash my hands. But being clean was not enough. We also had to use a thick scrubbing brush, sanitizing soap, and hot water on our hands every time we began or ended a task, or simply brushed past a non-sanitized table. People with HIV get sick a lot easier than anyone elsesomething we were reminded often.
Making meals consisted of chopping celery, stuffing bagels into bags with yogurt and cream cheese, braising chicken, peeling carrots, oiling mushrooms, and separating vegetablesgood from bad. The meals packed a caloric wallop 2000 caloriesto compensate for rapid nutrient loss caused by the disease. In addition, many of the meals were served with a high-energy drink called Boost, which came in a soda can. Local merchants donated produce, breads, and other groceries. Helping were other volunteersusually fewer than 10 each dayfrom nearby schools and churches, and friends of people with AIDS. The volunteers were critical; Project Angel Heart has only seven full-time staff members.
Our first route was in a nearby working class suburb. The van stopped in front of a plain, four-story red brick apartment building as I quickly memorized my instructions: One meal, one piece of fruit, no Boost, apartment 201, leave bag at door if no answer. I climbed two flights of stairs in a hallway heavy with the smell of paint fumes and disinfectant. Something was buzzing in the building. The door to 201 was open.
Can I help you? a hearty man in overalls asked from within. Um, were looking for Linda? I stammered, taken off guard. Shes gone. Moved out last weekend. Dont know where she went.
I thanked him and turned toward the stairwell. Sometimes this happens. People take off. Some can no longer afford rent after the high prices of medication. Others abandon their independence and move in with a friend or relative. Linda vanished. Just like that.
Sometimes we left the meal at the door or front desk, as instructed, but often the person for whom the meal was intended answered the door, smiled, thanked us, and made small talk. I would ask how their day was going. They might ask if I was in school, what I was studying. At one stop, a community living center for people with HIV and AIDS, a man took the meal then proudly introduced me to his dog. From the start, Id expected these kinds of bus-stop interactions. A casual exchange between two people, not the kinds of things friends at home were eager to hear. After all, these were people with AIDS, werent they? Wasnt there just one heated discussion about social convention, life and death? Alas, no. Just dignity and respect that I tried to communicate subtly through simple courtesy and everyday pleasantries.
Sure, there were times I wanted more. From the shadows of one apartment, one man only muttered thank you after taking the meal I offered. He shut the door quickly. I lingered for a moment in the hall, a dumb smile on my face. There I stood like a chipper little pixie, on a blind mission to brighten someones day. Then it hit me. I hoped for more validation that everything was okay. I had to realize that sometimes it wasnt. And I had to get over that and continue on.