Emotional attachment for fighting AIDS

For the Times

Ever since he was a teenager, Philadelphian Jon Garvey has been an eager volunteer. At 15, it was the Red Cross, and all through high school he signed up for community service projects.

Then, in his early 20s, Garvey became involved with ActionAIDS. Now, 19 years later, he is still a dedicated volunteer.

“There’s so much love and compassion in this program,” said Garvey, now 46. “Everyone is so dedicated, and they do phenomenal work.”

He’s referring to the “buddy” program that pairs volunteers with people who are HIV-positive or have AIDS. The volunteer buddies provide support and companionship to these clients.

Garvey first connected with ActionAIDS in 1988. “That’s when I came out of the closet for the first time,” he explained. “It was dangerous to be ‘out’ because people were so afraid of AIDS.”

He, too, was frightened. “I’d had unprotected sex because I didn’t know any better,” he said. “So I educated myself about AIDS, got tested, and to my relief I was negative. And then I wanted to do something to help my community.”

He read about ActionAIDS and decided to volunteer. The first step was an interview conducted by an experienced buddy. “I had a very positive feeling right from the start,” he recalled.

Next came four days of training that included everything from learning the history of HIV and AIDS to role-playing various situations that the volunteer buddies might encounter.

“By the end of training, I was very hopeful,” he said. “I felt this was a good place to put my energy.”

Garvey’s first buddy was Richard, who was HIV-positive. At first, Garvey spoke to him by phone and saw him once a month, which is the requirement. “This was the ‘getting to know you’ phase,” he said.

But soon the two became closer — and in part for an unexpected reason.

“I found out that one of my closest friends was diagnosed with HIV, and Richard was there to listen and to tell me what to expect,” related Garvey. “So it came full circle; he was now the one helping me.”

They began sharing more activities together. They went out to dinner or to the movies. They went to the Philadelphia Flower Show and other events. Garvey also drove Richard to see his mother, who lived in Wilmington.

Several years after they met, Richard’s medical condition worsened. He developed lesions on the brain.

“It’s rare and it meant he started losing motor skills,” explained Garvey.

It also meant he now had AIDS. When his condition became even more serious, Richard moved to the Calcutta House, a facility for people with AIDS. Garvey visited him every evening, coming to see him straight from his full-time job.

“He had become a very dear friend to me,” said Garvey.

In 2002, his friend was near the end of his life. “He looked like a stroke patient,” Garvey said. “It was difficult for him to talk. I tried to do what I could to make his life peaceful and to help him die with dignity.”

As the end neared, Richard slipped into a coma, said Garvey, who was there when his friend took his last breath.

The next day, the Calcutta House held a memorial service, as it does when any resident dies, and Garvey attended. Later, Richard’s mother and brother held a memorial service in Wilmington, and again, Garvey was there.

Meanwhile, there was an outpouring of support for Garvey from the ActionAIDS network. “Everyone in my buddy group called to offer support,” he recalled.

They all understood that this was a major loss. “And I still grieve for him sometimes, especially on birthdays and the anniversary of his death,” he said.

By the time of Richard’s death, Garvey was not only a buddy but a buddy team leader, which supervises new volunteers.

But after Richard died, he needed time out and took a leave of absence. When Garvey returned a year later, he was paired with another buddy — but this one didn’t work out.

He took another break, then returned and resumed his role as a buddy team leader. And he waited for a suitable new pairing.

It came in 2008 when he was paired with James. He was HIV-positive, but with no symptoms. “He goes to the hospital for checkups and takes his medications,” said Garvey. “But it’s not an issue we need to discuss.”

James was born with cerebral palsy and walks with a slight limp. He’s a senior at Widener, a school for special-needs students. His mother died when he was young and his father is not in his life, so he lives with his grandmother.

But since 2008, Garvey has had a key role in James’ life. They bonded quickly and easily.

“Whenever we get together, we always have a good time,” said Garvey. “And any little thing I do, he appreciates so much.”

Because of their age difference — James is 21 and Garvey is 46 — “it’s almost like I’m a surrogate father,” said Garvey.

And this “surrogate father” is as proud as any dad. James is a member of Widener’s wheelchair basketball team (even though he doesn’t need a wheelchair off the court, he learned to use one while playing) and Garvey attends all his games.

“At one tournament, he actually made a basket for the first time,” said Garvey. “And I cried like an idiot because I was so proud of him.”

Last year, Garvey attended James’ junior prom. “I loved watching him, he was the life of the party,” he said.

Now he’s looking forward to seeing James at his senior prom. “I’m renting a tux; I’m going to his house to take photos,” Garvey said. “And I’ll drive him and his date to the prom.”

And, of course, he’ll be there for James’ graduation later in June.

Unlike Garvey’s first buddy, Richard, James’ health is stable and he hasn’t developed any medical problems. So Garvey can enjoy his role as buddy and surrogate father.

“I feel very protective of him because he’s a special-needs young man,” he said.

Others have noticed his devotion to James. “People praise me and say, ‘You’re doing great things for him,’ but he’s changed my life, too,” Garvey noted. “I look at this kid who’s had such a difficult life. And yet he’s so personable, warm, funny and caring. People are just drawn to him.”

Over the years, Garvey has become involved in other AIDS-related activities. He participates in the AIDS Walk each year. And every August since 1995, he has been a volunteer for one-week stints at Camp Bright Feathers, a camp for youngsters who are HIV-infected or are impacted in some way by HIV or AIDS.

But ActionAIDS is Garvey’s major volunteer activity. And he makes time for this despite his full-time job as a business analyst for American Express. His office is based in Mount Laurel, N.J., so he also has a daily commute from his home to the office.

But that doesn’t stop him from faithfully attending ActionAIDS meetings and seeing James as often as possible.

The volunteer activity that began 19 years ago is now an integral part of his life.

“It’s been more rewarding than I ever expected,” reflected Garvey. “I’ve had two people come into my life who have enriched it so much. I feel I’ve gained much more from them than I’ve given.”

More about ActionAids . . .

ActionAIDS is at 1216 Arch St., sixth floor; call 215–981–0088. For detailed info, visit the Web site at www.actionaids.org.

It includes information about volunteer activities; you also can contact Jay Johnson, coordinator of volunteers, at 215–981–3324.

An HIV testing and counseling center is at 1026 Arch St., offering free walk-in testing. Check the Web site for hours.