Imagine Hope Quarterly Report
Updated: Sep 25
April - June 2021
Askia Abdul-Rahman, New HIV Specialist at DeKalb Community Service Board
Unusual Career Path Led New HIV Specialist to DeKalb
"You never know who people are
until you sit down and listen to their story.
I learned a lot about compassion and humility
from someone unexpected." Askia Abdul-Rahman
The new HIV Specialist at DeKalb Community Service Board, Askia Abdul-Rahman, began doing HIV testing in mid-March. Less than two months later, on May 13, he had his first positive result. He was prepared; he had already established a connection with the local Department of Public Health, but “It was sort of a shock; I didn't expect to get one so quickly,” says Askia.
His background is unusual. He has a degree in bio-psychology and was a lab technician – doing viral load testing for hepatitis, dengue fever, malaria, and HIV. Prior to the pandemic, he spent 14 months in South Africa in the Peace Corps doing HIV testing – giving results and counseling through an interpreter.
“I love that interaction with people,” says Askia. “Humans are social beings; social interaction is how we learn. And I learned a lot about compassion and humility in South Africa, from someone unexpected. You never know who people are until you sit down and listen to their story.”
In South Africa, Askia was rescued from a flood that killed 78 people in the village where he was serving. He was evacuated to Hatfield, a suburb of Pretoria, where he stayed in an 8 X 6 foot room for 3 months. “While I was in Pretoria,” says Askia, I met a group of men - people that might be called beggars here. Over there they call them amapara – a Zulu word that means parasites. Some appear to be on drugs; many may be infected with HIV or TB; and they are shunned by nearly everyone. But I used to sit down with them, buy them something to drink, a slice of pizza, and listen to their stories.”
Then one night, about 8 o’clock, I heading back to my little room and I was tired. It was a very low time for me. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get back to the village and at the same time not certain I was really making a difference there. I was missing home. I caught a sort of taxi that's more like a bus to the stop nearest my lodging and when I got out, I fell. I cut my face and broke my glasses – which was a big deal because I have terrible vision. I dropped my duffel bag and it tore. My clothes, my toiletries, my laptop – everything I had tumbled into the street. I gave up. I thought, ‘I’m tired; just take me back home.’”
“Someone started yelling, ‘American! American!’ I was so mad that I yelled, ‘I’m ready to go home!’" But then Askia realized that the person who was yelling was someone he knew - it was Thabang, an amapara that he had befriended. "He picked up my duffle bag and all my stuff from the street. He brought it back to me and he told me everything would be all right. But I was still angry; I argued with him, ‘No! I give up!’”
“For a while, we sat on a bench on the side of the road. Finally he said, ‘You helped me so much; you can't give up.’ Then he walked me back – maybe two thirds of a mile - to my little room. It shocked me that someone with so little cared enough about me to pick up my stuff, walk me back to my room, and encourage me to keep going.”
“But what really got through to me was him telling me that I made a difference to him. Telling me I shouldn't give up so easily. That saved me. He could have stolen all my stuff if he wanted to; I just left it there. I was tired. I was over it. But a man who was counted out of society lifted me up and made sure I would do the work I was intended to do. I know I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Thabang. He kept me from giving up on my dreams.”
Chris McClellan, Unison, Waycross, Georgia
Life and Death Work:
“My grandmother was a midwife. My mom is a midwife. Life and death work is a tradition in my family.” – Chris McClellan
“We are all in such a hurry that it’s tempting to dive right in to the education. But that can sound like a sales pitch."
“Making a difference is a personal thing for me,” says McClellan of Unison in Waycross who this quarter - in the midst of a COVID surge - screened 193 people for HIV and 136 for HCV. In addition to testing, Chris does a lot of prevention work. “You’d be surprised – even among sex workers, it’s shocking the number of people that have never heard of female condoms or flavored condoms. When I tell them about chocolate and strawberry flavored condoms they start laughing. It’s fun to be able offer someone an easy way to protect themselves.
Editor’s Note: Some flavored condoms are novelty items. Warn clients to check the label to make sure they can be safely used for oral sex and to use only water-based lubricants.
Chris has also learned the power of being with a client one-on-one. “We are all in such a hurry that it’s tempting to dive right in to the education. But that can sound like a sales pitch. I think clients get a little put off or maybe a little apprehensive about why we want them to test so urgently.”
"Some people think that all I deliver is bad news. But if I can help someone stay safe, teach them how to protect their health, that's no small matter."
Instead, McClellan focuses on bonding. “I think building that rapport is the most important thing, letting them know that you care about them as a person and allowing them to talk. I try to challenge them with questions and then I just listen.”
“Some people think that all I deliver is bad news. I probably get asked 2 or 3 times a day how I do this kind of work. But if I can help someone stay safe, teach them how to protect their health, that’s no small matter. And if I find someone who has HIV and help them get medical care, I just saved their life.”
Asked if he wanted to share anything with his peers, Chris described a poem that means a lot to him. “There’s a little boy walking along the beach and there are starfish everywhere. He’s picking them up and throwing them back into the ocean. An old man comes up and says, ‘Hey man, what are you doing?’ The boy says, ‘I’m putting these starfish back in the water so they won’t die.’ The old man points, ‘There are thousands of them and just one of you. You can’t possibly make a difference.’ The little boy reaches down and picks up another starfish and throws it into the ocean. Then he turns to the old man and says, ‘I made a difference to that one.’
“Make a difference for the one that’s in front of you.”
Valerie Lanier, Pineland/John's Place in Statesboro
Every Day is a Gift
"Now I see what my grandmother was talking about."
“I see why my grandmother was so particular about not taking anything for granted,”says Valerie Lanier. Lately, Valerie has been giving a lot of thought to what matters. She’s a nurse at Pineland in Statesboro, providing HIV testing to clients at John’s Place, a combination crisis unit and short-term residential treatment center.
“I’m totally vaccinated,” says Valerie. “But I’m even more cautious now about sanitizing, wearing a mask, and social distancing. And I’m not apologetic about it because it’s for the safety of all. With another strain and the number of infections rising again, it’s not as stressful this time because it’s not the first time around, but I’ve learned to accept the fact that this may be the new norm.”
The COVID pandemic has taken a toll – and it has also brought new perspective says Valerie. She is not only more cautious, she is more grateful. “I’m so much more appreciative than I’ve ever been.”
“It’s been such a hard, depressing time. It feels like we are just coming out of a dark tunnel and we can breathe again. Cautiously.”
“More than ever before, I'm learning to live day by day. I've always been a workaholic, but over the last year I've realized that I'm human and I can only do so much in one day; I can't allow myself to overstress about tomorrow.”
“Sometimes we take things for granted. I never thought I would go through anything that threatened us all – everyone – for more than a year, with no end in sight. It opened my eyes.
"Life is precious. I'm thankful for each new day, and I appreciate every little thing from the sound and scent of rain to the taste of a Georgia peach."
At the same time, Valerie is aware of the need for clients to learn their HIV status. “Stopping the spread of HIV is just as important as it was before COVID. I still find clients who don’t realize that with treatment, it’s possible to live a normal lifespan with HIV. Work that means something is one of the things I feel grateful for - meaningful work and each moment with the people that I love. Every day is a gift.”
2,268 HIV Tests, 1 New Confirmed HIV+ Diagnosis
During Q2/2021, the Imagine Hope Program screened 2,268 individuals for HIV. Of those, 100% received their results and the newly diagnosed HIV-positive client was linked to care. This quarter nurses and counselors provided on-going support to 129 HIV+ clients, served 10 new clients who were previously diagnosed HIV+ and re-linked 6 who had fallen out of treatment to medical care.