James Madison University

Springing into Service in the Big Easy

By: Jordan Pye
Posted: May 3, 2012

PHOTO: Project Lazarus

Service-minded students Karen Kappert and Bibiana Oe spent their spring break on a mission to spread some serious cheer. While exploring New Orleans, La. on an Alternative Break trip they lent a hand at Project Lazarus, a non-profit organization serving people who have HIV/AIDS.

New Orleans and the surrounding parishes (not counties) have some of the highest incidences of HIV in the country. Project Lazarus is the Gulf region’s oldest and largest facility that provides housing for people with HIV who are unemployed or homeless, or whose caregivers need a break. Alternative Breakers assisted the program by interacting with residents, making crafts and playing games to brighten up their stay.

“I think it’s a stigma that people are so afraid of people with HIV -- they get so isolated,” said co-leader Oe. “There’s no one really visiting them but they’re so funny and loving and passionate.”

The participants had their own reasons for choosing the trip, according to Oe. As a biology major, she thought the trip would focus on health care aspects of Project Lazarus’ operations, like dispensing medication or preparing meals for residents. Some of the participants had majors in health science, nursing, psychology or health service administration.

“It helped me to see that there are secondary needs patients have that help them live day-to-day,” said Oe, who originally planned to work in medicine but now wants to join the Peace Corps or work in public health. “Not only do you get to see an aspect of the issue at hand but experience a different culture and a different place, [it’s] a rare opportunity.”

PHOTO: Project Lazarus
Residents stay at Project Lazarus for an average of 12 months, receiving anywhere from minimum assistance to complete hospice care for those at the end stages of their illness. Beyond providing food and shelter, the program’s case managers help clients plan for their medical, legal and funeral needs, and provide social services such as mental health counseling and substance abuse intervention.

“The surprising thing,” Oe said about the residents, “is you can’t tell they have HIV. They seem very capable, very humorous and optimistic.”

Since its founding in 1985 more than 1,000 people have called Project Lazarus home. Nearly all clients fall below 80 percent of federal poverty guidelines. About half have a history of addiction, most are older than 40 and 30 percent of clients are women. The population Project Lazarus serves is about 70 percent minorities, mirroring the latest CDC statistics which showed that African-American and Hispanic populations together comprised 64 percent of new HIV infections in 2009.

As a health sciences major, junior trip co-leader Karen Kappert hoped the trip would help her connect with the clients and understand how HIV impacts their lives. To illustrate the complex medication regimen some residents might have, before the trip she and Oe gave their participants bags of Skittles and texted reminders throughout a day with instructions to take “doses” of different color Skittles. On site, she learned the importance of keeping the clients’ surroundings sanitary to support their compromised immune systems.

“On a truly health-care standpoint, it made me realize how expensive having an illness is,” said Kappert. She had learned about HIV and discussed the implications of not having health insurance in classes, “but to actually see how thankful the residents were for the medication they were provided, that they would not have been able to get before, puts things into perspective.”

PHOTO: Project Lazarus

After graduation Kappert hopes to join the Peace Corps in Africa where HIV/AIDS is prevalent.

“Before this trip, I had never interacted with anyone with the HIV/AIDS and it’s something I want to be familiar with before I work with people who have the disease,” said Kappert. “I hope that I can impart the knowledge I have gained to people I meet and open their eyes a little too.”

Project Lazarus has 25 full-time staff but relies on volunteers year-round to take residents to medical appointments and provide companionship. This interaction is a crucial part of the program’s mission to care for people with AIDS who face discrimination, sometimes from their own families, because of the stigma surrounding their condition.

“As a volunteer you’re not solving this problem or changing the world,” full-time volunteer Lily Hannigan said. “You’re going to be there for these people and serve wherever you’re needed.”

Hannigan works as the resident activity coordinator by facilitating community meetings, arranging game nights and planning trips to parks, movies and fun sites around New Orleans. Most activities are designed to help residents achieve greater independence.

To help volunteers understand their role at Project Lazarus, “we try to expose them more to the personal side of HIV and [show them] what living here for a week is like,” said Hannigan. “The mission is to put a human face on this disease.”

Project Lazarus housed approximately 20 clients during the spring break week, and the ASB volunteers stayed in one of the residential facilities so that they could share dinner with them, watch movies or just talk about their day.

“The JMU group was really outgoing and fun and friendly and knew how to respect the residents’ boundaries,” said Hannigan.

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday the volunteers began the day at the residents’ 9 a.m. community meeting and led activities after lunch, one day attending a Zumba class with the residents and another time playing a trivia game to promote their health awareness. On Tuesday and Thursday the students helped with household chores, ran errands with residents and worked on a vegetable garden project. On their last day they held a talent show for the residents, opening with Kappert and Oe’s choreographed rendition of Beyonce’s “Low on Top.”

“They did a great job of just being friendly and fun, bringing in a lot of positive new energy,” Hannigan said. “The residents still talk about the Virginia group and how much they like them.”

Pam Steele, an area director for the JMU Office of Residential Life, attended the trip as a learning partner to learn more about the issue of HIV and expand her comfort zone by working with a new group of people. Her favorite moments from the week included walking around the Garden District and stopping for gelato on the way back, experiencing “Bourbon Street craziness,” participating in a music therapy class with the residents and playing a super competitive game of BINGO.

“These people have really lived full lives although many are not physically old,” said Steele. She credits the residents for inspiring her to explore what it means to live each day to the fullest.

“When we asked one resident how he was, he replied, ‘blessed that I woke up this morning,’” said Steele. “We take that for granted that we are going to wake up each day and go.”

Oe hoped the trip would strengthen her participants’ desire to stay involved.

“As a leader I hoped to guide them into believing what potential they had to make a difference in a person’s life, by whatever service they felt passionate about,” said Oe. It’s all about “the gratification of knowing that if that were you -- homeless, in poverty, unemployed, isolated by a disease -- that someone else could help and motivate you.”