One of the few South Bay drop-in centers for people with the AIDS virus has opened its doors in Hawthorne after being denied space in three buildings in the area.
The center, called Friends Without Barriers, is an informal place where people who are HIV-positive or who have AIDS can stop in and chat, get counseling, a massage, lunch and some compassion from founder Alma Martinez.
Martinez, who has a full-time job caring for babies born infected with HIV or addicted to drugs, decided to start the center after she learned in 1989 that a close relative was HIV-positive.
"That led me on my journey," she said.
Martinez felt that she could make a difference by helping other HIV-infected individuals shoulder the hard times they experience by creating a center to give them the love and support they sometimes do not get from their families.
She has seen her own relative survive after seven years with the AIDS virus and she feels she could help other HIV-positive victims.
"There is a lot of hope if there is early treatment," she said. "Their mental health is very important, whether you think you are going to die or survive. It makes a big difference."
Friends Without Barriers was organized in July 1994 at a different location in Hawthorne. Later that year, the ceiling caved in and Martinez temporarily moved her center in early 1995 to the Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center in Hawthorne. But many of the clients felt uncomfortable going to a hospital because they already had spent so much time at medical facilities.
After much searching, she came across a small business building at 4249 W. Imperial Highway where 25 to 30 clients, 75% of them Spanish-speaking, can drop in any time except Sunday and find a counselor. There are free support groups, massages, lunches and testing for the virus.
The center, which celebrated its grand opening last week, wants to turn another suite into a nursery so that mothers who are HIV-positive or have AIDS can drop by for therapy and a massage or just find someone to talk to.
Clients find it a soothing change from the isolation and depression they normally feel.
"This is my house," said 31-year-old Adolfo, a client who asked that his last name not be used. None of his family or friends knows he is infected. This is the only place he can go to talk about his problems, Adolfo said.
"If it weren't for Alma, I doubt if I would be here," said Martin Shields, a 47-year-old client who has been coming to the center for months. "She's better than any grandmother or mother."
When Shields ended up in the hospital last year, it was Martinez who was there to hold him and comfort him. "You can cry here and nobody will look at you funny," Shields said.
The day-to-day operations are run by Sister Elizabeth Wilbers, who also is an AIDS counselor and educator. Four other people are on the staff, including George Meza, the center's mental health director.
Friends Without Barriers is funded in part by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange and the Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center.