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By Rich Arenschieldt
Twenty years ago, I was given the most meaningful professional responsibility of my life. I was asked to facilitate a one-of-a-kind advocacy training program, Project LEAP (Learning, Empowerment, Advocacy, and Participation), something I did for nearly a decade.
Since its inception, this 17-week program has trained numerous advocates, many of whom live with HIV and participate in Houston’s Ryan White Planning Council, which oversees the allocation of $28 million in federal funds that provide services for 13,000 HIV-positive Houstonians. This deliberative body, comprised of consumers and others, was legislatively mandated by the 1990 federal Ryan White CARE Act.
Tracy Gorden is a retired 65-year-old long-haul truck driver, a six-term Planning Council member, and a LEAP graduate. “In 2005, I suddenly lost my insurance and had to quickly find an alternative. A friend of mine helped me solve that problem. Then after being retired for a few years, I decided it was time to help others as I had been helped. I enrolled in LEAP, graduated in 2011, and joined the Planning Council in 2012.
“When you begin something in life, you rarely have all of the facts about it,” Gorden continues. “Usually you spend a significant amount of time trying to get and understand basic information. LEAP enables you to grasp a fairly complicated process in a relatively short period of time.”
Dena Gray Hughes is a longtime HIV-positive community activist who enrolled in Project LEAP in 1997. “There was a time when I never thought I’d be able to look back 20 years about anything,” Hughes says. “LEAP was the first major step I took to prepare myself for a lifetime of community activism.
“I had been recently diagnosed, and everyone told me, ‘Enroll in Project LEAP,’” she remembers. “I needed to be with people who shared my experience—even if (as an African-American female) they didn’t look at all like me. Joining LEAP was like getting on a freeway—once you got on, there was no stopping.
“You develop meaningful relationships with your classmates,” Hughes says. “We learned, listened, and debated everything—the intensity was life-changing. Our instructor continually told us: ‘If you are going to be effective leaders, you must know this information.’
“There was no ‘social media’ at that time—if you wanted to know information about HIV, you went to LEAP,” she continues. “Everyone had my [landline] phone number, and I had theirs; we were connected. There is tremendous benefit to being in the same space with people who comprehend your situation and share your passion. This knowledge puts you on a path. Get on it. Expand the path. Hurry up. We are still here.”
Hughes says, “25 years later, I am still telling people: ‘You need to learn this. Don’t waste your efforts complaining. Get to work. Once you graduate from LEAP, then you can roll with the movers and shakers in the field—not before.’”
If you would like to get involved in Houston’s Ryan White Planning Council, you can apply online at surveymonkey.com/r/PLEAP2017 or, if you’d prefer a paper application, please contact the Ryan White Planning Council Office of Support at 713.572.3724. The brief written application and an in-person interview are required. Applications must be received by 5 p.m. on Friday, March 3, 2017. If you wish to apply after March 3, please call the Office of Support.
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.