Each month we profile a hero in the fight against HIV—a researcher working to stop the disease, a staff member improving health in our community, a dedicated donor, or someone living with HIV who's an inspiration to everyone around them. This month we profile Terry, San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s Speed Project coordinator. Her story shows that a warm welcome and a friendly ear can be powerful forces for change.
Something amazing happens every Wednesday at 117 Sixth Street: Hungry people get a healthy meal, folks without regular medical care get free acupuncture and massage, and stigmatized and marginalized men get a safe space to socialize—and to support one another’s goals around health and substance use.
It’s called “Wellness Wednesday,” and it’s changing lives week by week. And it all happens because of San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s own Terry Morris and her team of volunteers.
Terry came up with the idea for Wellness Wednesday two years ago as a welcoming, comfortable meeting place for marginalized gay and bisexual men to access services around their health and drug use, and to both gain and give support. “I’ve seen people make really amazing changes,” Terry says. “Managing your drug use can be really connected to loneliness or being socially isolated.” Men who come to Wellness Wednesday and Terry’s other groups value the opportunities to connect with others, make friends, and exchange information with people who have personal experience navigating the systems of HIV care, housing, and social services.
In addition, the site offers mental health and substance use counseling, sterile syringes and safer-injection supplies, and free quarterly sexual health services provided in collaboration with the San Francisco Department of Public Health to help people stay well and protect their partners. “It’s really important to be able to offer services for people in an environment they’re already comfortable in, and where they can access other resources,” Terry explains. “Not everybody’s going to come to a needle exchange, but some people might say, ‘I’m going to get a massage, and I might pick up clean needles while I’m there.’”
And, she adds, “the culture is that you’ll be supported where you’re at” on the spectrum of substance use. That’s a foundation of the harm-reduction approach, she explains: partnering with people to address their own goals, whether those include quitting one or more substances, reducing how much or how often they use, or managing other aspects of their lives—such as HIV risk, housing, and mental health—in the context of their ongoing use of drugs or alcohol.
Terry’s work in the HIV/AIDS field started early, when she moved to San Francisco as a teenager in 1986 and started volunteering with No on Prop 64, a group fighting a California ballot initiative that would have permitted people with AIDS to be isolated and quarantined. “It was amazing to go canvassing in neighborhoods where people were still incredibly homophobic and talk about AIDS when I was a 17-year-old kid.” But after losing friends and an uncle to the disease, for Terry, the fight was personal.
Her entry into the world of harm reduction also had a personal inspiration. Having experienced drug use herself starting at age 13, and having loved ones who injected drugs and sometimes had chaotic lives, Terry felt she needed to do something. “I started volunteering at a needle exchange because somebody who was really close to me, one of my girlfriends, was a heroin user, and I really needed to wrap my head differently around drug use,” she says. “Abstinence-only approaches work for lots of people, but they didn’t help me be with her where she was, or provide a helpful frame for what was going on with my own drug use.”
Volunteering at a local needle exchange in Atlanta, Georgia—where syringe exchange is still illegal—taught her about harm reduction. “I learned from people in the community,” Terry says. “People were so generous.” The organization was underfunded and tiny, and after six months of volunteering, Terry stepped into the role of executive director. “I had to Google stuff and look up theories of behavior change so I could write grants! It was crazy. You just do what you’ve got to do in someplace small like that.”
Terry returned to San Francisco to be closer to her parents, but her six years in Atlanta left a lasting impression. “I think when you live on the East Coast or the West Coast, or you work for a large organization, you forget that in a lot of places in this country, there is no community buy-in: Needle exchanges have to operate in secret,” she observes. “And people who inject drugs are often considered not worthy of help or services: ‘They brought it upon themselves.’ That sounds pretty familiar to me, as someone who remembers the ‘80s.”
This coming November, Terry will mark her eighth year working with San Francisco AIDS Foundation and providing harm reduction services for injection drug users and other marginalized people in our community. What does a typical workday look like for her now? “My day involves a lot of listening—and then helping people listen to each other’s stories, and helping create spaces where people don’t rely on me, as the facilitator, to come up with solutions. People come up with their own.” She likens her role to being a dancing partner: “You try to let the client be the one who’s leading, and you’re just looking pretty going backwards.”
The work isn’t easy, Terry acknowledges, and self-care—including walks by the water and talking with colleagues—is essential to her own well-being, but the clients are always uppermost in her mind: “I want them to have places to heal from the things that they’ve survived as children, as teenagers, as adult men. So many of the men I meet survived the early years of the HIV epidemic and had devastating multiple losses of all of their peers, all of their friends, their lovers. So I want them to heal.”
Terry can tell she’s making a difference in the lives of the people she sees. “You can’t underestimate the shame and stigma people face around their substance use. For people who inject, in particular, it’s highly stigmatized and a highly secret thing,” she says. “You know you’re doing a good job when people in a group feel safe to talk openly about things that are usually secret.”
And while Terry’s work is helping people make changes in their own lives, it has also changed hers. “You know, I hear wisdom from all kinds of people,” she says. “I meet people who have their priorities way more in order than some people who have way more means—people who are loyal, who take care of each other, who share.” Asked how she knows she’s in the right place and doing the right kind of work, Terry replies, “I don’t want to sound corny or clichéd, but I see the evidence every day. I love this job. It’s so fulfilling. I feel really lucky.”
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