14 Years of Positive Force

This weekend, roughly 20 guys newly dealing with their HIV diagnosis will get the answers and support they need at a two-day workshop in the Castro. It’s called PLUS—Positive Living for Us—and it’s just one of the unique services offered by Positive Force, a program of San Francisco AIDS Foundation and Stop AIDS Project.

“For lots of guys, we are the first people, other than their doctor, that they talk to about their new diagnosis,” says Positive Force treatment advocacy coordinator Everett Holden. “Particularly when you’re recently diagnosed, the clinical and medical aspect can be really overwhelming and scary,” adds Brad Vanderbilt, also a treatment advocacy coordinator. “We’re there to help people sort out their options and prioritize what’s most important for taking care of themselves and moving forward.”

Designed by and for HIV-positive gay, bisexual, and transgender men, Positive Force blends peer support, education, and community connection into its five core services: the weekend-long PLUS educational seminars; twice-monthly physician-led discussions on staying well with HIV (nicknamed “The Doctor Is In”); quarterly presentations by experts on the latest in HIV research; one-on-one peer-based counseling sessions; and “Urban Adventures,” monthly social get-togethers that range from bowling nights to scavenger hunts.

“What we’ve designed with Positive Force,” explains program manager Justin Jones, “is a program you can enter in a ‘low-threshold’ way, such as going to a social event—have some fun, go home—all the way up to working really intensively on your personal health and wellness goals with a peer counselor.” Men can choose the level of engagement that feels comfortable as they begin navigating San Francisco’s resources for people living with HIV. Adds Brad, “We’re the warm, fuzzy ‘launching pad’ into interfacing with all the big health systems in the city.”

Though diverse, the program’s services have a key feature in common. “The number-one thing we hear about time and time again is the need for connection to community,” says Justin. “That connection is really interwoven through all of our services.” At the PLUS seminar on April 20 and 21, for example, built-in time for socializing and breakout sessions led by former PLUS participants will complement medical professionals’ presentations on the latest in HIV treatment.

To Brad, this aspect of Positive Force addresses a tremendous unmet need for gay, bi, and trans men in the Bay Area: “I’ve had several guys say, ‘You know, I’ve lived in San Francisco for X number of years, and this is the first time I’ve felt a part of the community.’”

That sense of connection is also fostered by the peer-based counseling program, one of the most unique features of Positive Force: Men newly addressing their HIV health can ask questions and talk frankly with fellow HIV-positive guys about decisions around starting and sticking with meds, ways to protect their sex partners from HIV, and the emotional side of living with the virus—topics that may not always make it on the agenda during brief doctor’s appointments, Justin explains.

In addition to working intensively with clients to set and achieve their own goals around living with HIV and their emotional well-being, “we also help guys figure out targeted questions to ask their clinicians, so that they can advocate for themselves in the medical setting,” adds Justin. “It helps them get the answers they need, so they can make more informed decisions about their health.” While acknowledging that peer counselors do not offer medical advice, Justin notes that what they do offer is invaluable: first-hand experience dealing with HIV and strategies for communicating with medical providers.

This July, Positive Force will mark 14 years of connecting positive men and building community in the Bay Area. What’s next for the program? “We’re in the middle of training Positive Force ‘ambassadors,’” Justin explains, “so when somebody needs support beyond what we can provide in the office, we can pair him with a buddy who can be there for extra support.” That’s just one more way Positive Force is helping change lives in our community.

Think the boys of Positive Force are having an impact in our community? Give them some words of encouragement in the comments below! Want to get involved and attend PLUS or another Positive Force event? Visit the program online to get the details and sign up.

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