Staying Well, Aging Well: Meet Stokes

Stokes was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. He will be the first to admit that the past 28 years have not been easy. Like many other people who are growing older with HIV, his journey with the disease has been filled with ups and downs. But today Stokes is happy, healthy, and focused on his future, thanks to the help he gets from San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Stokes grew up in a well-to-do family in Ohio. Despite that upbringing, he spent some time living on the streets as a young man. But Stokes is a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of guy. His energy and his spirit always rise up in the most difficult of times. So he found jobs to sustain himself. He’s been everything from a janitor to a mental health services counselor, a social services administrator, a mediator, and a peer advocate. He is strong and resilient, but drugs proved to be his biggest enemy.

“I am a former drug user,” says Stokes. “It was what brought me to my knees. But I try not to be shameful of my past. Instead, I try to learn from it.”

Stokes is now in his second period of recovery. He’s been sober since 2000. “I’ve changed my life significantly. I’m now able to be present and see life around me.”

Stokes has been coming to San Francisco AIDS Foundation since the 1990s. He’s seen a transformation in the foundation’s programs and services in the last several years. In fact, he affectionately calls it the “New San Francisco AIDS Foundation.”

“I’m now able to find more services under one roof here at the foundation than I ever have before, and that’s very helpful to me,” says Stokes. “I still often find myself crisscrossing the city to access services, but more of what I need is now at the foundation so I don’t have to travel around as much.”

Stokes comes to San Francisco AIDS Foundation to get case management to support his engagement with medical care, meet with substance use and mental health counselors, participate in support groups, and attend Black Brothers Esteem meetings.

“I recently had a traumatic experience in my life and I needed to speak with a counselor,” said Stokes. “Thanks to the foundation, they set me up with one-on-one counseling sessions right away and it’s been a wonderful, trusting relationship that’s helped me a lot. The foundation certainly understands the populations it serves.”

Stokes is now helping us to create a brand new program to increase community building and social support among gay and bisexual men age 50 and older, whether HIV negative or HIV positive. This is a strong area of focus right now for San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

“Growing old has its challenges for everybody, especially gay men who have already lost so much to AIDS, and that’s why we are now developing our 50-Plus Network,” said Jeff Leiphart, director of clinical services at San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “Our ‘older guys’ have told us clearly that they want to support one another in their aging process, and—importantly—also contribute to the community their wisdom accumulated through experience.”

Stokes understands the critical need for robust networks of services for all people living with or at risk for HIV. He’s concerned about diminished funding and attention toward the HIV epidemic.

“AIDS taught us a lot about how to live,” said Stokes. “Many entitlements that saved lives and made people more comfortable have been cut. We need to make sure that organizations like San Francisco AIDS Foundation stay strong for people like me. It takes a village to keep people healthy. It’s not just one program, it’s all of them working together to make our community stronger.”

Stokes says after nearly 30 years of living with HIV he’s now finding his own voice, and he wants everyone to hear his story.

On Wednesday, October 23, San Francisco AIDS Foundation and Stop AIDS Project will host a Real Talk forum that focuses on perspectives from the AIDS Generation. Get the details and RSVP.

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