In 1989 at the height of the AIDS epidemic, a group of Bostonian’s living with HIV/AIDS organized a Thanksgiving dinner in effort to promote a sense of belonging for people affected by the virus. This Thanksgiving meal served over 20 years ago, symbolizes the birth of the Boston Living Center (BLC), a nonprofit community resource center for Bostonian’s living with HIV/ AIDS.
BLC Program Director Larry Kessler has been an AIDS activist for over 30 years. He accepted the position of program director six months ago and says “the core of the organization is food. It goes way back to the mid 80’s when people were having a hard time relating to anybody. They felt embarrassed, ashamed, and scared.”
Stigma and discrimination are universally experienced by individuals living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Misconceptions of how HIV/AIDS are transmitted have left those impacted isolated and denied basic luxuries such as gathering around a table to enjoy a hot meal.
The BLC meals program serves about 120 BLC members daily, and depends largely on the work of volunteers. Head Chef and Meals Program Manger Rafael Garcia said he first came to the BLC as a Boston Cares Volunteer. “I thought it would be a good fit, my brother had HIV so I knew I would be able to relate to some of the people here. When I was offered the manager position I told myself I was only going to stay for two years, but nine years later I’m still here.”
With only three full-time kitchen staff, volunteers are the backbone to the success of the meals program. Individuals living with HIV/AIDS immune systems are highly compromised, and maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet is vital to their health. Many BLC members consume all of their food through the meals program and depend strongly on it. “None of this would be possible without our volunteers. They are the most important part of this establishment; we can’t do it without them!” said Garcia.
61 year old Carlos Rivera worked for 20 plus years in the medical software industry before retiring. After a few months of living what Rivera refers to as “the retirement dream” of eating Bonbons and watching television all day, he decided he needed to do something productive with himself. Rivera signed up for a new volunteer orientation with Boston Cares over a year ago and began volunteering with the BLC. “You know that old saying it’s better to give than receive? It’s proven every time I come to the BLC. I leave exhausted, but really happy and content that I was able to help out.” he said.
Jimmy Bucalo is 53 years old and has been a member of the BLC since 2010. “I’m a long term survivor. I’ve had HIV for 32 years.” he said. Bucalo has lunch at the BLC daily and knows firsthand how essential the volunteers are to the program. “We are grateful! Even the most miserable of us on a certain level are grateful for the fact that people actually care to come in here and help.”
Bucalo was diagnosed with HIV in the early 1980’s, a time when the medical world knew very little about the virus and those who were infected were dying at alarming rates. “I was living in Los Angeles and my boss at the time was the fifth person to be listed as dying of HIV by the CDC. I went through a long period of taking care of people who were dying. ”said Bucalo. Despite living with a deadly virus for more than half of his adult life, Bucalo is a cheerful man with a keen sense of humor and positive outlook.
The BLC meals program provides persons living with HIV/AIDS more than just a hot meal, but also a sense of belonging, community and hope. Volunteers who work at the BLC are more than just a pair of helping hands; in a community where so many feel forgotten Kessler says “volunteer’s help the members feel like there is a larger world that cares for them.”” Since 2012 Boston Cares has mobilized 1,024 volunteers to serve at The Boston Living Center, and donated a total of 4,560 volunteer hours.”