BALTIMORE — Whenever Gail Graham, director of HIV/AIDS Outreach Services and Ministry at Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church, performs an HIV screening, she remembers what it was like to sit on the other side of the table, waiting for the results. Graham has lived with HIV for over 17 years, and over those 17 years there have been incredible advances in detecting and treating the virus. When she was first diagnosed, Graham had to take a “cocktail” of pills; now, she takes a single pill a day— and her viral load is undetectable.
“You can now live a normal, long, healthy life,” Graham said. “But you have to be in treatment.”
The first step toward that healthy life is getting tested, which is why Mt. Lebanon’s HIV/AIDS Ministry offers screening events for members of the community. On November 27, 2014, the church, with support from community partners, sponsored their 3rd Annual World AIDS Day Testing for Turkeys, a health fair where participants who showed up for screenings were offered free turkeys. Another health fair is slated for May 9, 2015 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., as part of a celebration of the ministry’s seventh anniversary. This event will also feature members of The PATIENTS Program, who will be on hand to talk about how patient-centered research can lead to better health care outcomes for all kinds of people.
Graham, who is a certified tester and counselor, started the ministry to serve the needs of the community.
“This zip code has one of the highest rates of HIV and AIDs,” she said.
Graham first started going to Mt. Lebanon with her best friend, and she connected personally with Pastor Franklin Lance, D.Min, expressing her desire to help people just like her.
Pastor Lance told her, “that’s your ministry,” and, since then, Graham has devoted her energies to screenings, education and empowerment. The ministry offers free, confidential HIV testing and prevention counseling. Bi-annually, the HIV/AIDS outreach group teams up with the JACQUES Initiative, an organization that offers a wide gamut of care options for people with HIV; the JACQUES Initiative’s Journey to Wellness program connects people with clinical services and research, as well as case management and social support services.
“JACQUES Initiative will see people without insurance, and can even help them get set up with insurance,” explains Graham, who adds that she has also benefited from the JACQUES Initiative’s support services. She is also able to offer a very personal kind of support, even providing her personal cell phone to newly diagnosed people who need encouragement; she will refer anyone who tests positive for a follow-up screening, and will provide interim counseling and assistance in connecting them with the resources they need. Graham proves that one can do more than merely survive with HIV, but actually thrive.
Her volunteer work with the ministry gives her a sense of purpose; she enjoys time with her grandchildren; and she even goes on dates with her significant other. The HIV/AIDS Ministry’s hours of operation are from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.