T.J. Lee is a Positive Force: Hope through Knowledge, Support & Connection

Positive Force clients leave with hope—in addition to the knowledge and resources they need to live healthier and happier with HIV. That’s something that program manager T.J. Lee makes sure of. In the year and a half since he’s stepped up to lead Positive Force, his team has provided one-on-one wellness support to nearly two hundred men, engaged hundreds of men in social and community activities, facilitated an online forum where members can turn to each other with questions or advice, organized educational lectures for long-term survivors, and conducted weekend seminars for guys newly dealing with HIV.

His goal? To always make sure his clients get the resources and support that they need—a tall order in so many cases.

Leading Positive Living for Us Seminars (PLUS), Lee sees clients at an incredibly critical point in their lives—when they are newly diagnosed with HIV or newly dealing with an HIV status. PLUS is held over the course of a weekend—giving Lee and his team time to help attendees change the way they think about their diagnoses and learn how to live with HIV. He and his team give the guys who attend information about living with HIV, support when it’s most needed, and the tools they need so they’re proactively able to engage in their own health care.

“It’s so powerful,” Lee says. “By the time they leave, they realize things aren’t as bad as they thought they were.”

Lee is always happy to see clients change their outlook on life by attending PLUS. He’s seen the transformation in clients as they learn that they don’t have to die from AIDS.  He points to a recent client who, after being diagnosed at Magnet, was referred to PLUS. “He thought he was going to die from [AIDS]—so when he realized how long one of our facilitators had been living with HIV, he started to cry.”

Once clients learn they’re going to live—Lee wants to make sure they learn how to live.

That means staying current on the latest news and research related to HIV, and getting that information to clients in the most appropriate ways. Positive Force organizes “The Doctor Is In” sessions a few times a month, which he says are typically attended by well-informed long-term survivors. These Positive Force clients—who Lee describes as most often “highly educated” about the disease—get a chance to learn from HIV specialist Dr. Joanna Eveland. This month, he’s asked Eveland to provide a report-back from the recent Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI)—the preeminent scientific HIV conference where researchers and practitioners learn the latest HIV research and clinical findings. “They pay attention to research,” says Lee, “and we want to contribute to their knowledge.”

Working with clients who have been more recently diagnosed with HIV, Lee says that he most often helps men with disclosure and disclosure strategies. “Men want to know—how do I tell a partner? So that’s one thing we work on. How to tell your partners, how to tell your friends.”

His words of wisdom?

“Happy hour is not the place to do it. During two-for-one? No—not the time. Wait until you’re somewhere private, or somewhere you feel safe—where you won’t be interrupted,” he advises.

Lee and his team also see clients during one-on-one wellness sessions, where clients have the freedom to address any topic that’s of concern. Lee says the goal of these sessions is to help clients get connected to care and virally suppressed. This includes making sure that clients are seeing a doctor and adherent to antiretroviral therapies, but oftentimes means that Lee and his team have to help with larger issues, too. “What ends up happening is that we end up dealing with recurring issues either around housing security, homelessness, substance and alcohol use, food, or partners. We have to take care of those types of issues before we can even tackle other HIV issues,” he explains.   

Lee hopes that, in the future, Positive Force will continue to grow and reach new men living with HIV. “People want to feel connected,” he says. Which is why he set up an online forum where members can turn to each other with questions, concerns, or words of support. “Even if they’re not coming to events, they can still interact and know what’s going on.”

Lee wants to make sure that socializing and community engagement remain an important part of Positive Force. He’s seen how his clients have connected with each other—formed lasting friendships—and bonded during Positive Force activities. It’s great, he says, when he sees groups of friends connect with each other, and show up to events together. “When people are out and talking and interacting with others—not just staying home and watching TV—they’re going to take better care of themselves.”

Find more information about Positive Force here. The next PLUS weekend is scheduled for April 25 – 26, 2015. If you or someone you know could benefit from attending, please contact pforce@sfaf.org.

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