Cat bids farewell to the BLC!

Caterina “Cat”CatPicture Rodriguez has been our social work intern at the BLC for the past 8 months. As she moves forward in her journey at Boston College to become a social worker, it is time for Cat to say goodbye to the BLC and leave us with some thoughts of her experience here…

It’s hard to believe that my time at the BLC is coming to a close when it feels like my first day back in September was not too long ago. Having moved to Boston just two weeks before I began this internship, I actually had never been to the BLC, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Little did I know that I would be in for the surprise of a lifetime.

From my first day here, I was greeted with so much warmth and excitement by both staff and members, and given the freedom to really explore all parts of the BLC. There has never been a moment when I didn’t feel completely welcome. It was like I instantly became a part of this community. Because that’s what BLC is, a community. It’s much more than just an organization or agency. From the smallest details, like our open door policy, to the most intentional gatherings, like communal meal times, every aspect of the BLC functions to foster a sense of community that is often times hard to find.

Getting to know the members has been such an incredible gift. Between eating meals with me, allowing me to sit in on groups, or strolling into my office with a question or a casual conversation, the members at the BLC not only immediately welcomed me into the Center, but also invited me into their lives. It’s easy to assume that in my role as an intern I’m here to serve them and help them, but in reality, the members served me and taught me just as much as I did them. In the membership I got to witness incredible stories of struggle, heartache, resiliency, strength, and victories. And that is something I will never forget. From amazing life stories to commiserating over the insane winter season to laughing so hard my stomach hurt, the members at the BLC have given me so many moments that I will cherish forever.

Getting to be a part of the staff at the BLC for these past 8 months has also been quite the ride. After my first couple of weeks, I quickly realized that the staff here are much more than just work colleagues to one another. They actually share their lives with one another, from the smallest of quirks to the biggest life events to the most hilarious inside jokes. It’s a kind of family that is often times rare to find in a workplace. And it trickles down into the work that they do and the efforts they put into the Center. This unique sense of community is not only found in the membership, but also in the staff, as well as between members and staff. And just like the members welcomed me into their lives, so did the staff welcome me into their “work family.” In addition to all the awesome supervisory chats, laughs, office talks, and bonding sessions, I am taking away so many lessons in life and in work from these wonderful people I have gotten to call colleagues and friends throughout this past year. Each one of them has helped me learn and grow in different ways, both as a person and as a social worker.

So as I wrap this up, I just want to say thank you. Thank you to all of you at the BLC who welcomed me with open arms into your community and your family. What I am taking away from this experience is a lot more than just a broader knowledge base of HIV/AIDS or operational management. I’m taking with me the memories of each one of you, every conversation, every laugh, every life lesson. This is a very special place and a very special community, and I am both honored and humbled to have been a part of it. Wherever my future may lead, know that I will carry it with me in joy and gratitude.

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Meet the BLC’s Peer Navigator Eli Feliciano!

I sat down with Eli for a brief interview to hear about his time and role at the Boston Living Center as he prepares to move on from the BLC. I have paraphrased some of Eli’s answers below, while the portions in quotations are Eli’s own words. While I cannot truly speak for his experience, Eli’s voice shines through as we get a glimpse into who he is at the BLC. The following is what transpired from our brief encounter:

How long have you been at the BLC? Has the BLC changed since you’ve been here?
I’ve been at the BLC for 1 year and 9 months. I came in after the merger [with Victory Programs] so there were a lot of changes that happened before I arrived.

What makes the BLC special?
It’s a unique place that has its own culture. A big part of the BLC is the meals; people come for the meals and it’s a big part of what we do here. The BLC is also a safe place for many people. They don’t have to worry about their status and can talk to people in a friendly environment. It can serve as kind of a second home for many people.

If you are willing to share, would you like to tell me your HIV story?
Well, I was diagnosed June 23, 2008. I had gotten very sick with a persistent cough and was losing a little bit of weight. I had waited – putting off getting tested because in the back of my mind I kind of already knew. I was scared and thinking that it might be HIV, but was too afraid and avoided finding out. When I finally went to the doctor, I was at the beginning stages of pneumonia. My t-cells were also at 172, so technically, I was diagnosed with AIDS. When I heard the diagnosis, it was the weirdest feeling that I still remember to this day – it felt like the life was literally sucked out of me. All throughout my body it was like I could feel the life leaving me.

In what ways has your life changed since your diagnosis?
“Yeah, it changes. It changes you mentally, it changes you physically, it changes you sexually… You kind of step back a little bit and you don’t really get yourself out there like you were before.

I think that everybody goes through different stages, you know? The stage that I’m going through now is something that someone who’s been positive for 20 years has been through….You go through finding yourself, finding your niche and saying, ‘now this happened, where am I going with this?’”

Do you think that there is stigma within the BLC community?
“Oh yeah… there’s always stigma.”

Where do you think it comes from? How does it form?
“I mean, there’s specific stigma from each of us, but it comes from a bigger spectrum… we are just a little part of what we were taught in our families, what we see in TV, what we hear on radio, what we hear in the bus, in our community, in our group of friends, and all we learn – not only here – we are that kind of species. Everything we do and say we learn it, and so we just take it with us.

And we do it, even people who say they don’t stigmatize, we sometimes do it. I’m not saying purposefully, or maliciously, but we sometimes do it. It comes out! And you know, if you catch it that’s the best part because you’re like…’why am I stigmatizing that person?’“

What will you miss most about the BLC?
My Latino group.

What is it about your Latino group that you’ll miss?
Well I kind of helped create, or fostered, the group. I identify with them most and we have a lot of shared experiences that we can talk about. We’ve created a place here for each other.

A special thanks to Eli for being so candid, and taking the time out of his day to take part in the interview!

Getting to know our PULSE volunteers: Meet Maura!

Here at the BLC, we are extremely lucky to be one of the sites for Boston College’s PULSE program for service learning. We have had the great opportunity of having 5 amazing undergrad students volunteering with us since September 2014, and as their time with us is soon coming to an end, we wanted to hear a little bit about what their BLC experiences have been like. Today we’d like to introduce Maura O’Neill!

1) What drew you to the BLC during your PULSE placement process?

Because I was in PULSE last year and am now a member of the student council for the program, I knew a bit about each of the 57 options for placement. What I was looking for most was a community and an opportunity to learn. On my tour of the BLC, I was immediately welcomed. I met staff and members who seemed willing to share their experiences to help me better understand how crucial the BLC is to Boston. I also recognized an opportunity for advocacy as I began to learn more.

2) What is/are your favorite part(s) about volunteering at the BLC?

I love the freedom I have to engage with both members and staff. Whether I get into a deep conversation or become involved in Craigslist house hunting, I’m able to continue rather than being forced to stick to a schedule, though I do like the structure that the schedule provides us. I feel that I am able to see what the job is like for staff when I have a chance to chat, shadow, or help them in their duties. And, of course, I really enjoy dinners!

3) What has been one moment that has stood out to you in your time at the BLC and why?

Though I’ve had many meaningful experiences at the BLC, one of the ones that sticks out most is the World AIDS Day Candlelight Vigil. I remember feeling so inspired, not only by the amount of people who came to support it, but also by the singing, the remembrance of friends and family members, and the engagement of those who walked by. I felt so proud to be surrounded by so much strength and love.

4) Has your experience at the BLC impacted the way you understand HIV/AIDS and/or the people living with it?

I have learned so much, especially about the stigma and discrimination that people living with HIV face. I even ended up writing an in-depth research paper on this topic. This prompted discussion with staff and allowed me to understand HIV/AIDS in a broader social context. Being at the BLC every week has impacted my understanding of individual members’ experiences.

5) If you could describe your BLC experience in one word, what would it be and why?

My BLC experience in one word is motivating. I feel motivated by the resilience and dedication I have witnessed in staff, members, guests, and volunteers. And I feel called to advocate in any way I can.

Getting to know our PULSE volunteers: Meet Christine!

Here at the BLC, we are extremely lucky to be one of the sites for Boston College’s PULSE program for service learning. We have had the great opportunity of having 5 amazing undergrad students volunteering with us since September 2014, and as their time with us is soon coming to an end, we wanted to hear a little bit about what their BLC experiences have been like. Today we’d like to introduce Christine Rotondo!

1) What drew you to the BLC during your PULSE placement process?

I was drawn to the BLC after attending the PULSE Town Meeting on campus. I enjoyed hearing about the different activities that occur, from the Cyberspace computer lab to sculpting in the art room and Monday night dinners. I enjoyed touring the BLC because everyone, both staff and members, warmly welcomed us PULSE students and were open to any questions that we had. The BLC stood out to me for its overall commitment to fostering a safe community for people living with HIV/AIDS in the Boston area.

2) What is/are your favorite part(s) about volunteering at the BLC?

My favorite part about volunteering at the BLC is definitely working the coatroom because I get to interact with each member as they arrive for lunch. Whether exchanging a quick hello or talking about our plans for the week, it is a gratifying opportunity to individually touch base with each member.

3) What has been one moment that has stood out to you in your time at the BLC and why?

One moment that stood out to me during my time at the BLC was during one Monday night dinner in January. I chose to sit next to a member whom I’d never met before, and I was unsure of what would come out of our conversation. Within minutes, this member and I were sharing stories and realizing that we had a lot more in common than anticipated. This individual turned out to be one of the most kindhearted people I’d get to know and made that dinner unforgettably meaningful to me.

4) Has your experience at the BLC impacted the way you understand HIV/AIDS and/or the people living with it?

Absolutely. As a nursing student at Boston College, I have learned the pathophysiology and clinical manifestations of HIV/AIDS. However, I have come to realize that I could not have fully understood the true complexity of living with the virus if I hadn’t chosen to volunteer at the BLC. Volunteering at the BLC has impacted the way I understand HIV/AIDS because it has given me the opportunity to see how the stigma of HIV/AIDS affects people in my community every day.

5) If you could describe your BLC experience in one word, what would it be and why?

Rewarding. I am so grateful to have been placed at the BLC for my PULSE service requirement. Volunteering at the BLC has been such a worthwhile experience in regards to learning about HIV/AIDs and getting to know such remarkable individuals that I may not have otherwise crossed paths with. The BLC is a truly special place for the members, staff, and volunteers. It is a beacon of hope, joy, and camaraderie, and I am privileged to be a part of it!

Getting to know our PULSE volunteers: Meet Mike!

Here at the BLC, we are extremely lucky to be one of the sites for Boston College’s PULSE program for service learning. We have had the great opportunity of having 5 amazing undergrad students volunteering with us since September 2014, and as their time with us is soon coming to an end, we wanted to hear a little bit about what their BLC experiences have been like. Today we’d like to introduce Mike McShane!

1) What drew you to the BLC during your PULSE placement process?

What highly drew me to the BLC was the atmosphere I saw as soon as I stepped in. I noticed that all of the people there were friendly with one another and were relying upon each other for strength to fight through every day. I recognized that the BLC was not just somewhere that provided the services for people and sent them on their way, but rather it is a place that encourages the members to continue to grow throughout their entire life.

2) What is/are your favorite part(s) about volunteering at the BLC?

My favorite part about volunteering at the BLC is simply sitting down and speaking with all of the different amazing members. I constantly hear stories about perseverance and success that give me hope to truly make a difference in my lifetime. If people are able to fight through such a tough disease mostly by being in community with others, then it makes me believe that being there for others is the best way to provide support and show love.

3) What has been one moment that has stood out to you in your time at the BLC and why?

One moment that has stood out to me is speaking with a particular member about his journey that brought him to the U.S. and the BLC and his hopes for the future. The intensity with which he spoke was amazing and truly inspiring. It is a moment that I hold dear to me and I know that I will never forget.

4) Has your experience at the BLC impacted the way you understand HIV/AIDS and/or the people living with it?

Yes. Coming in, I knew nothing about HIV/AIDS or the people living with this disease. There were stereotypes and stigmas that I heard, but because of my time at the BLC, these stereotypes have been shattered. I know that many people do not understand what it means to be living with this disease, nor do they know that the only effect it has on who a person is, is that it makes them stronger. I have never experienced a stronger or more resilient community than the people I interact with at the BLC.

5) If you could describe your BLC experience in one word, what would it be and why?

Strength. I feel that everyone at BLC embodies some sort of supernatural strength that allows them to not only continue on with their lives, but to flourish. The BLC members have shown me that in the face of suffering and anguish, one can truly thrive if they have strength.

Getting to know our PULSE volunteers: Meet Ariana!

Here at the BLC, we are extremely lucky to be one of the sites for Boston College’s PULSE program for service learning. We have had the great opportunity of having 5 amazing undergrad students volunteering with us since September 2014, and as their time with us is soon coming to an end, we wanted to hear a little bit about what their BLC experiences have been like. Today we’d like to introduce Ariana Paradise!

1) What drew you to the BLC during your PULSE placement process?

I was initially drawn to the BLC because I wanted to volunteer at an agency that would allow me to serve people older than myself. In the past, I had typically done a lot of service involving children and I wanted to experience something new. The BLC was able to give me the experience I was looking for. Another reason I was drawn to the BLC was because the staff was very welcoming and enthusiastic to have me there. This made me feel like I was wanted, which a lot of the other PULSE agencies failed to do. Additionally, the BLC had a very open environment that would allow me to serve others in the most effective ways possible, as well as allow myself to grow and experience new things.

2) What is/are your favorite part(s) about volunteering at the BLC?

My favorite part about serving at the BLC is getting to enjoy lunches and dinners with the BLC members and staff. I love being a part of this because it gives me the opportunity to get to know a lot of the members more personally because I get to sit down and have a meal with them.

3) What has been one moment that has stood out to you in your time at the BLC and why?

A moment that has stood out to me was when I was in charge of dinner door duty last semester. Every week when I would do this job, it would make me feel happy when the members gradually started to recognize me and remember my name. These brief interactions eventually developed into stronger relationships with the members where they would feel comfortable enough to share with me things about their jobs or home-life away from the BLC. It made me happy that the members wanted to share these kinds of things with me, and that they would be excited to see me every week at the door! My interactions and relationships with the members make me feel like I am important to the BLC when I come to serve every week.

4) Has your experience at the BLC impacted the way you understand HIV/AIDS and/or the people living with it?

Before coming to the BLC I had no knowledge of HIV/AIDS. My experience at the BLC has taught me everything I know about HIV/AIDS relating to how it is transmitted, treated, and how one lives with HIV/AIDS. My favorite experiences are when members decide to open up to me by sharing how they became HIV-positive, and by talking about the stigma they experience in their lives because of their HIV status.

5) If you could describe your BLC experience in one word, what would it be and why?

Influential–I would use this word to describe my BLC experience because it has influenced me to change how I view others different from myself, as well as how I view the world around me. I learned not to be so quick to judge others because you never know what they are experiencing/facing in their lives that makes them the way they are. With this said, it’s important to not be judgmental, but instead be understanding and open to the idea that people’s experiences shape who they are and can teach us many things about why people act certain ways and how they effect the world we are living in. The differences between the BLC members and myself are what changed how I act towards others in the world because of my new open mindset towards others.

Getting to know our PULSE volunteers: Meet Audrey!

Here at the BLC, we are extremely lucky to be one of the sites for Boston College’s PULSE program for service learning. We have had the great opportunity of having 5 amazing undergrad students volunteering with us since September 2014, and as their time with us is soon coming to an end, we wanted to hear a little bit about what their BLC experiences have been like. Today we’d like to introduce Audrey Fleming!

1) What drew you to the BLC during your PULSE placement process?

I was very interested in finding a PULSE placement related to healthcare because it is a field I am extremely interested in and want to be a part of post college. After taking a tour at the BLC, I knew that it would be a perfect fit for me because of the community-like environment and cheerfulness of the members. In addition to the members, all of the staff seemed very open and excited to have PULSE students come in and help for the year. The BLC is a community where I have constantly been learning and forming meaningful relationships since the first day I began volunteering in September.

2) What is/are your favorite part(s) about volunteering at the BLC?

My favorite part of my day at the BLC is eating lunch at 12pm with all of the members and staff in the cafeteria. When the members come in to eat, everyone is happy, friendly, and always wants to know how you are doing and what you have been up to. The staff often sits and eats among the members and even the volunteers have fun serving food. The cafeteria is an amazing environment to relax, forget about your daily troubles, and enjoy a delicious meal with friends.

3) What has been one moment that has stood out to you in your time at the BLC and why?

One of my most memorable experiences from my time at the BLC was the Gratitude Dinner, which representatives from all of the Victory Programs attended at a restaurant in Dorchester. I will remember this event for a very long time because I experienced first-hand the positive effects that the Boston Living Center and the other Victory Programs have had on so many lives. During their speeches, many past and current members from the BLC said that this center saved them and they do not know where they would be without the love and support from their fellow members. These speeches stuck with me and make me so grateful that I am volunteering at a place that is working to make real change in the lives of those associated with it, and to know that I have even a miniscule part in these changes is an honor.

4) Has your experience at the BLC impacted the way you understand HIV/AIDS and/or the people living with it?

My experience at the BLC has taught me so much more than just the basic facts about HIV/AIDS. By attending workshops and having conversations with members, I have learned about HIV/AIDS stigma and how much it affects many people with the virus, which I was not aware of before my volunteering began. I see how many members here at the BLC not only have to deal with the effects of the virus but also other parts of their lives that are affected, such as work and housing.

5) If you could describe your BLC experience in one word, what would it be and why?

Effervescent. Effervescent is defined as vivacious and enthusiastic. I would consider the staff and members to give off effervescence and even the BLC building itself. Everyone is always happy and lively at the Boston Living Center every single day. The cafeteria is always active with conversation and laughter, which can be heard even from the lobby below. This is a center for people to gather and celebrate life, to take comfort in knowing they have such a large support system, and I feel recharged each time that I come in to volunteer.