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A Haven Where Fear, Ignorance Aren't Welcome : Graciela Morales and The Gathering Place Support, Counsel AIDS Sufferers and Their Care Givers

October 30, 1994

Graciela Morales has been executive director of the Gathering Place--a Southwest Los Angeles drop-in center for people with AIDS and HIV--since April, 1994. Born in Fresno , Morales has worked as an educator and a counselor. She has trained health care workers and therapists in how to deal with HIV-positive patients and, as a consultant to the Centers for Disease Control, she helps write study guides for professionals who work with HIV-positive clients. She recently spoke at one of the first Women and AIDS symposiums ever held in Japan. Morales worked as a psychotherapist at T.H.E. Clinic before joining the staff at The Gathering Place. She has three adult children and lives in Alhambra. She was interviewed by Karen E. Klein .

We try to provide a non-judgmental atmosphere for HIV-positive members and their care givers at The Gathering Place. It's the only daytime drop-in center for people with HIV infection and AIDS in the Southwest area of the city. We have 125 to 130 members who use the center each month.

They're allowed to come here at their leisure. They get a hot lunch, nutrition counseling, food staples, clothing and referrals to other services and agencies.

Most of all, we want them to leave with the knowledge that they have been treated as an individual here. Because they're HIV-positive, that stigmatizes them in a lot of settings. There are not many others who understand where they're coming from.

You could say that AIDS has become my life's mission. I'm not HIV-infected and I don't have any close family members who are infected. But I'm a very spiritual person and the mission and the goals of The Gathering Place fit me. I've always been a caregiver and I have a ministerial background, so I see my profession as a ministry. This is what God wants me to do.

I was referred to T.H.E. Clinic as an intern while I was doing my doctoral work in educational counseling at UCLA. One of my professors thought it would be good for me. I had never counseled in the field of health but I started counseling prenatal women at the clinic.

I came across my first HIV patient, a woman who was six months pregnant. When the nurse-supervisor told me I had to counsel this woman, I fell apart. I was afraid of AIDS, I was terrified of it.

I went back to school and told my professor, "You didn't tell me I had to deal with AIDS!" So he said, "OK, let's get you some training."

I got training and began to counsel this patient and other HIV-positive patients. Being who I am, I wanted to do more. So I became a trainer for other counselors who had to deal with HIV-positive clients.

It's always been inherent in me to be an advocate. I've been an activist all my life; it's a calling. I can't give these people money or wealth, but I can give part of myself.

The Gathering Place has been around for four years, but within the last year and a half it has turned into more of a family oriented center. We have about 64% males and 36% females, but the number of women is increasing constantly. Four percent of our members are children.

About 70% of our members are African American, 26% are Latinos, 3% are Caucasian and about 1% are Asian.

With such a high percentage of African Americans and Latinos, the whole family becomes involved when one family member is infected. The care givers, who are usually family members, may be uninfected but they come in here for services, too. They also need support.

At times, I've had whole families come into my office and I've helped one person tell all the others that they have tested positive for HIV. It's a very difficult job, and it's very taxing emotionally and physically.

My entire staff--I have three full-time and four part-time--is trained to listen and to give social support. They recognize that while they're professionals, they also have to be able to push that professionalism aside and just listen to the person who is coming in for services. That's what we're able to do that a lot of other agencies can't do.

When I first came here, I was told that because I am Latina and the clientele here is largely African American, I'd have difficulty working with them. But that has not been true at all.

HIV and AIDS infects everyone. It doesn't see color. When our members come in, they don't see color. I don't see color lines, or gender lines or sexual-orientation lines.

For those members whose disease is advanced, we offer connections to hospices, we help them with their wills and with child care and we arrange for adoptions. Hopefully, all that burden is taken off of them before they get to the end stages of AIDS.

Recently, we've seen a lot more homeless people infected with HIV at The Gathering Place. A year ago, 10% of our members were homeless. Now, it's more like 23%.

The homeless spend a lot of time here. This is their home away from no home. They come and use our sofas.

One man asked me for a tarp to cover up his space on the street, because he told me his spot would get taken if he didn't have a tarp. I got him a tarp and he was so grateful. Most of us complain about the place we live in. He just wanted a tarp.

We always need financial support, particularly now for women's and children's services, and we need volunteers. who can serve lunches, talk to the members, provide transportation, do office work, you name it.

I hope more people can get beyond their fears about AIDS and their ignorance.

If I had stayed in a fearful position, I wouldn't be here today. Once you conquer that fear, there's no telling what you can do.

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