A support group for gay HIV-positive men of color provides a modern twist on the classic support group model, offering 24/7 online support and an affirming community for its more than 500 members in metro Atlanta.
THRIVE SS – cofounded by Dwain Bridges, Larry Walker and Daniel Driffin – seems like a natural extension of the trio’s combined 30-year history working in public health, with much of that time focused on HIV/AIDS education and prevention.
Bridges (photo) – now the Community Health Outreach Coordinator at AbsoluteCare – met his other co-founders during his tenure at AID Atlanta. What eventually became THRIVE SS – Transforming HIV Resentment Into Victories Everlasting Support Services – originally started as a traditional, in person support group for HIV-positive people under 30. But the organization wasn’t successful in getting sustained attendance.
“I think the first meeting may have [had] six or seven people come, the second it was about five, the third I think it got down to about three people,” Bridges said.
Walker suggested they try the group again, but this time making it highly accessible on social media while still vetting its members and maintaining the privacy of their membership list.
“Larry presented the idea, like, ‘hey let’s start this back up and let’s take it online, most people are online,’” Bridges said. “We said ‘oh let’s try it,’ and it just took off from there. Everyone is driven by social media, so why not take the support to social media?”
In addition to their 520-member strong base in Atlanta, the group launched last month in Washington, D.C. and has quickly grown to more than 100 members. Other chapters have also launched in Oakland, Nashville and Charleston, S.C.
All groups share the same “undetectables model,” which is built on the idea of lowering an HIV-positive person’s viral low so low that it’s undetectable and using social media to build community around this for HIV-positive men of color. In Atlanta, the online community is combined with in-person events since all three co-founders live here.
The local events are designed to create a group that Bridges described as “like a fraternity.” Bridges added they are building out a “friendship network” that sustains “true, authentic interactions.” This is the part of their support model that THRIVE SS calls “Judy support.”
Online with THRIVE SS, members exchange advice about side effects of different medications, accessing programs that make antiretroviral medicines affordable, which doctors to see, navigating stigma, and questions about sharing their status with partners and family. The group’s members also share more intimate moments – fears about finding love, starting families and the possibilities of a satisfying life after becoming HIV-positive.
Bridges said the group also makes a point to celebrate seroversaries – the anniversary of a person finding out they are HIV-positive – and the steps people take to get and stay healthy.
“If someone is HIV-positive, there is so much stigma and so much negativity out there, so what we created was just an opposite,” Bridges said. “It’s normalizing this epidemic, it’s truly encouraging people to seek treatment and be excited about thriving and not just surviving.”
In addition to the online and in-person social support, the group connects members with service providers, primarily through the assistance of the connections of the co-founders to service providers, HIV non-profits that provide HIV testing and the Fulton County Health Department. The Fulton County Task Force on HIV/AIDS, which Driffin co-chairs, recently detailed its ambitious plans to eradicate HIV in the county.
“I see the future being very bright,” Bridges said.