Chip Supanich changed his life by giving back. In 1995, he was living on the streets in San Francisco, using injection drugs, and sick with an AIDS diagnosis. Now, he’s an appointed member of the board of directors of the Shanti Project, the Mayor’s Disability Council, the HIV Prevention Council, and the HIV Health Services Planning Council. An avid advocate and volunteer for people with disabilities, HIV/AIDS, and those who use injection drugs, Supanich’s journey stems from one powerful motivator: gratitude.
“I used to be resentful. I used to look at what I didn’t have as opposed to what I did have. But after I started to get my health back, in the mid-nineties, I started giving back. If you’re grateful, you can’t be resentful. If you’re compassionate, you can’t be intolerant. That’s my philosophy, and that’s what I follow.”
In 1997, Supanich joined the Shanti Project as a volunteer after completing a 22-hour volunteer training. In those days, Shanti volunteers exclusively helped people living with HIV/AIDS who needed assistance with everyday tasks in addition to social and emotional support. He says that oftentimes, Shanti clients are people who don’t have anyone else in their life.
“They may be estranged from family, they may be bedridden, or maybe just more comfortable in their homes. Shanti’s primary objective is to give emotional support.”
After volunteering for two years, Supanich got so sick that he had to stop volunteering, and ended up applying for a Shanti volunteer himself. The first volunteer helped him for two years, the second still sees Supanich on an ongoing basis—with a relationship spanning 11 years. “We’re like brother and sister. We’ve seen each other through highs and lows and all sorts of turbulence. She’s lasted longer than any man in my life,” he says, smiling.
Supanich’s long history with Shanti—as both a volunteer and client—led him to be appointed to Shanti’s Board of Directors in 2009. Since that time, he’s been giving input into how Shanti will continue to serve as funding for AIDS service organizations dries up and sickness and death related to HIV/AIDS becomes less prevalent.
A former IV drug user himself, Supanich has also given back by donating his time and energy to organizations serving people who use injection drugs. For six years, Supanich worked with San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s Syringe Access Services program; first doing volunteer outreach and then as a site supervisor. He speaks passionately and insightfully about the public and personal benefits to supplying people who use injection drugs with sterile needles—even pointing to how he personally benefited from such services before entering recovery in 1998.
“I used these services, and they saved my life—probably. Or at least they kept me from getting diseases, like hep C. You can get some pretty nasty infections from sharing needles. Syringe access reduces the spread of infectious disease, and it also reduces emergency room visits and hospitalizations—so that saves our community, our society, a lot of money. Syringe exchange services also humanize the population. We can refer people to services, give them referrals, talk to them about how they’re doing, how they’re using, and how to be safer.”
Supanich still does syringe exchange volunteer work—in addition to HIV testing and counseling—with Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco’s gritty tenderloin neighborhood. He was homeless briefly—only for about 6 months—but this experience, he notes, helps him understand the everyday struggles of the clients he sees.
“I know the street—a little bit. So I understand, I’m compassionate, and I’m not judgmental. I accept that there are things that people I see can or can’t do—or aren’t willing to do. And I’m respectful of that.”
The service and public health organizations who now receive Supanich’s valuable input appreciate his perspective—as a former client, long-time volunteer, and community advocate. Supanich is currently the co-chair of the Mayor’s Disability Council, helping ensure that the city complies with the American with Disabilities Act. From his experience receiving disability assistance he recognizes that not all disabilities are visible. “Something like 19% of people in this country have a disability. Many of them work—and have good lives. I want to make sure, behind the scenes, that people with invisible disabilities are included in the benefits that we do. It’s not just HIV—it’s things like fibromyalgia, or chronic fatigue syndrome.”
Working with the HIV Prevention Council, he’s applied his experience with drug harm reduction strategies to help develop policies related to drugs. “We looked at things like embracing the concept of harm reduction, and integrating it into all facets of care so that people can go to an agency and say they use drugs. Because that’s something important for medical and support personnel to know. And then without judgment—without telling them it’s wrong—meeting the person where they are,” he explains.
For the past five years, Supanich has also served on the HIV Health Services Planning Council, or Care Council for short, a federally-mandated council that helps allocate Ryan White funding to AIDS service organizations. Earning the respect of other providers and consumers of the council—with his background as both a client who uses services funded by Ryan White and as a board member of a providing agency—he was unanimously elected to be co-chair of the council.
Even as Supanich’s work has taken him closer to working on the policy aspects of HIV prevention and care, he recognizes the importance of maintaining close ties to the population he ultimately hopes to serve.
“I think everyone in policy should do outreach. It’s a little knock on the head—this is why you’re doing this work. It’s not about the money, it’s about the people.”
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