“Everybody was dying,” he told Project Q Atlanta. “I would come home from work on a Friday, and the first thing I’d do is go to my answering machine and find out who had died that week.”
PALS was founded in 1990 to provide pet care so that people with HIV could keep their pets. The organization also helps the pets of people with terminal illnesses and the elderly.
“One of the ways that pets helped [people with HIV] was to give them comfort and emotional support, especially for those outcast from society,” Mead said. “The animals helped them survive a little longer and survive with less depression.”
Mead and other volunteers would deliver pet food and supplies and bring pets to appointments. But the ravages of the virus often led volunteers to provide more support.
“HIV used to manifest itself in people’s eyes, so they sometimes couldn’t see anymore,” Mead said. “A lot of our clients had neuropathy and couldn’t walk. A lot had AIDS dementia because the virus in advanced stages caused people to have brain fog.”
So the volunteers would walk the pets when the clients weren’t able to, and sometimes even change the clients’ sheets and do their dishes. The clients’ families often disowned them, so they just needed someone to talk to.
“They would call the PALS office,” Mead said. “I would answer the phones and talk with them for 30 minutes or an hour.”
Into the woods
Mead could relate to PALS clients. He’s gay and was diagnosed with HIV in 1984. His family disowned him.
“Back then, gay people helped gay people because nobody else would,” he said. “They talk about the song ‘We Are Family.’ Well, we were the family of all of these people that were dying of AIDS.”
But all the death surrounding Mead became too much to bear. He moved with his dogs to an A-frame cabin at the end of a dirt road in Northwest Georgia in 1999. There was no cellphone service and no internet.
“I needed to move for my sanity,” he said. “I just escaped. I isolated up there. I just had to. The PTSD got so bad that when my mother died, I couldn’t go to her funeral. I couldn’t go to another single funeral or memorial service.”
In 2019, Mead returned to Atlanta and now lives in Morningside. And he returned to volunteering for PALS.
“It was like going home,” he said.
The rise of antiretroviral medications and regimens like PrEP and PEP changed the landscape of HIV treatment and prevention since the early days of the epidemic. But it’s still an epidemic.
Atlanta has the second-highest rate of new HIV infections of any city and Georgia has the highest rate of new HIV infections of any state in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
So the work continues at PALS.
PALS needs volunteers
Mead doesn’t do as much of the strenuous tasks that he used to do at PALS.
“I’m 69, and have had HIV for 37 years, so I limit the things I say yes to,” he said.
He volunteers at PALS’ monthly vaccination clinic and drag queen bingo fundraiser.
Volunteers like Mead are “gems,” according to PALS executive director Buck Cooke.
“PALS could not do what we do without the help of our talented and dedicated volunteers,” he said. “In Roy’s case, it is flattering as an organization that someone moves back to town and wants to resume volunteer work that they did before they moved away.”
“We welcome others to join our volunteer ranks, so if you’d like to help deliver pet food, walk dogs and cats at our monthly vaccine clinics, want to serve on our board of directors or one of our committees, please get in touch with me!” Cooke added.
PALS’s next drag queen bingo night fundraiser is at Lips Atlanta on Oct. 12. The group also hosts low-cost pet vaccine clinics at the Phillip Rush Center Annex on the third Sunday of every month. Click here to make a donation to PALS.