For Clients Like Alejandro, Open Arms is Family
“I don’t have any family here, so Open Arms became my family. You [Open Arms] are the ones who always have checked in on me and are the only ones who have always sent me a cake and card on my birthday. To know that I have a support network means the world to me,” said Alejandro, a client of Open Arms.
Open Arms CEO Leah Hebert Welles notes that clients often come to Open Arms in a moment of need and vulnerability in their lives. That moment and the experience of it are different for every client faced with a life-threatening or critical illness. For Alejandro, his journey began nearly two decades ago when he was diagnosed with HIV.
“I was diagnosed with HIV in the early 2000s and became symptomatic in Italy while I was there to watch the Turin Winter Olympics,” he explained. “The official diagnosis came months later. It was devastating, both personally and professionally. I thought my world had come to an end. After meeting with my doctor and my case manager several times and having lost my employment due to my HIV status, they suggested that I reach out to Open Arms. My case manager knew that I was – and still am — a very active advocate in the HIV/AIDS community both locally and nationally. They encouraged me to continue on my journey and still motivate me to this day. Ultimately, it all came together because I knew of Open Arms’ history coming out of the HIV/AIDS crisis — a time when both institutions and society were hesitant to step up to the plate.”
Alejandro became an Open Arms client in 2011 in what he describes as a pivotal and potentially life-saving moment in his health journey. Prior to becoming a client, Alejandro understood the importance of his diet and the power of healthy food. Without healthcare and in between jobs, he decided to study macrobiotics under the guidance of world-renowned guru Denny Waxman. “He believed that by eating a simple, healthy diet, we could live in harmony with nature. Through Denny, I learned to use nutrition as the primary way of controlling my HIV. And my doctor respected my decision.” Alejandro knew what he had to do, and Open Arms provided him with the nutrition and tools to do so.
“I love all the fish meals, especially the parmesan-crusted fish and fish tacos,” Alejandro said. “After taking part in some of the programs Open Arms provided, like learning how to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving; I learned how to make the meals go even further. I am now taking some of the meals I love and using their components to make dishes like Italian soups and Moroccan chicken tagine.”
Alejandro performs in zAmya Theater’s production of Yule See, Yule Remember.
When I finally got a job, had access to healthcare, and started to get romantically involved again, I made the informed decision to start HIV medication. Within weeks, I was undetectable and have been ever since, for more than ten years now. Thanks to Open Arms, my system was so strong and healthy that I responded dramatically to the medication. Your meals prepared my body.”
Alejandro often reflects on the moment when he first received Open Arms meals. “Here’s this organization who is going to give me meals, free of charge, and with no strings attached. This organization has supported people like me, with HIV, and has been doing so since the 80s when at the time, nobody else would. It brings me to tears.”
Like many of Open Arms’ clients, the impact of the mission extends beyond the meal itself. For many, like Alejandro, Open Arms is a community. As he recalls, Alejandro was welcomed into a judgment-free zone where he didn’t have to face the stereotypical questions a person diagnosed with HIV often endures. Instead, he was welcomed into an inclusive community who “accepted me for who I am.”
Today, Alejandro considers himself to be as healthy as he has ever been, for which he vastly credits Open Arms. He stays busy in the community through his advocacy work and can even be seen on the stage through his involvement with zAmya Theater, a nonprofit organization that uses the powerful combination of lived experiences and artistic expression to inspire communities to work for housing justice for all. We caught up with Alejandro during the group’s performance of Yule See, Yule Remember held at the Pohlad Auditorium on Dec. 20.
“I was heavily involved in theater during college at Macalester, and later, professionally with Theatre de la Jeune Lune as well as In the Heart of the Beast,” said Alejandro. “Eventually, I became a grant recipient for my clown shows. When I moved back to Minnesota after living overseas in Switzerland with my sister and my then four-year-old niece, I did my best to stay connected to the theater scene. But having to secure steady employment kept me off the stage. This year, a decade later, a friend of mine who had seen my clown work suggested I get involved with zAmya, and I found my friends with whom I had shared the stage during both my professional and Macalester days!”
Alejandro describes his participation in zAmya much in the same way that he describes Open Arms. “It’s a community filled with people from all walks of life. What we try to do, much like Open Arms, is share our work with the community – for free,” he laughs.
As HIV/AIDS Awareness Month comes to a close, Open Arms proudly supports and stands by people living with HIV/AIDS in our communities. We remember our roots and honor the over 35 million people lost to HIV/AIDS-related illnesses.