Retreat provides healing hand to people with HIV

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Considering the scores of people with HIV that Sherry Meltz has worked with over the years, she stresses one thing above all others to them: The disease is something they can survive. That motto is the cornerstone of her Heartsong Southeast retreat this week.

The annual event, which opened Wednesday and continues through Sunday at Beckwith Camp & Conference Center in Fairhope, Ala., Heartsong Southeast is the creation of Meltz, a mental health counselor for Pride Medical who has also founded her own non-profit, Absolutely Positive.

“This is my message: HIV is an interference but it is survivable,” says Meltz (second photo). “Even when we were talking about it years ago, we would never refer to it as terminal. Back than, frankly, it was pretty terminal, but we never let anyone use that word. I have people who came to Heartsong that bought it. They are alive and thriving today. I truly believe, historically, we have provided hope for the community.”

The non-denominational, spiritual retreat in its 16th year stresses healing the mind, body and spirit for people with HIV/AIDS. At the beginning of every retreat, Meltz has attendees stand up to see who has survived with the disease the longest. Last year attendees had 190 years of survivorship between them.

She expects a record number of attendees this week – 40 in all, 10 of whom are facilitators. Everyone save for herself is HIV-positive. The number of women has grown to 10 from what “used to be one or two max.” Besides daily meditation, the event features breakout programs and sessions, including “The Reinvention of Self,” as well as music therapy, educational events and a talent show.

The retreat came about in a roundabout way. Meltz was volunteering with AID Atlanta while working on her master’s degree. At the time, Sandy Thurman – who later became President Bill Clinton’s AIDS czar – was the executive director at the organization. 

“I went to her and said there are no testing resources, nothing in the suburbs that gives people access to treatment,” she says. “Everyone is coming into town, to AID Atlanta. Everyone who lives in the suburbs, they aren’t getting tested at all.”

Thurman encouraged Meltz to form her own organization, which she did. Absolutely Positive became a support group for those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. There was talk of spinning the new nonprofit into a satellite agency with AID Atlanta but with a change in staff at the agency, Meltz flew solo.

One of her early clients was a 31-year-old woman from “way up in North Georgia,” Meltz recalls, who drove nearly two hours for assistance. The woman introduced Meltz to a program in Cullman, Ala., called Heartsong.

“It was like an epiphany, what could be for people living with AIDS – moral support, mental health support, hope, managing an acquired illness, taking the terminal terminology out,” she says.

Meltz began attending and soon she was told by Heartsong staff that she was bringing so many people that she should start her own program. So she did in 1995. Her version originally took place in Atlanta but she joined forces with a colleague in Florida and Meltz’s Heartsong became Heartsong Southeast. They moved the event to Beckwith in 2004. The Southeast version pulls together attendees from Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Next year, Meltz hopes to have enough funding to accept 60 participants. In Atlanta, the Armorettes have donated $25,000 to the event and another $25,000 to Absolutely Positive through fundraisers.

Despite advances in HIV/AIDS treatment, Meltz says it remains essential to educate people about the disease, especially younger people unaware of the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

“Our motto whenever we talk or speak is that our community has got to be mindful of the fact that HIV is manageable but that apathy is lethal,” she says. “Our community has gotten apathetic. The reason is, some people say to themselves, that I can take two pills a day and I’ll be fine. That is not the message. We have so much work to do. We cannot be in a position to turn a blind eye to that. We need to look at the past, the middle and the current. This is not over. We have to do a better job.”

[photo via]


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