In honor of it being HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, I thought I’d dedicate this post to spreading awareness, to end not only the silence and shame surrounding HIV/AIDS, but to say that there is absolutely no shame in asking for help when its needed.
It took me until now to be able to write about this. I mean, it’s not quite the topic to brag about, but it has shaped a big part of who I am today. Life can take a turn any day, at any point in time, but the truth of the matter is that sometimes people just need help. Giving back to the community is something I am whole-heartedly passionate about, and these are some of the events that led me down the path of working as a dietitian at Housing Works, and how you can help too.
You may know it as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), federal assistance, or quite simply food stamps—but what you don’t know is that growing up, my family relied on these programs to put food on the table.
Both of my parents were immigrants from China, whom like so many others, had escaped to the US to give my siblings and me a chance for a better life. My mother, who came here with nothing, had saved up every penny she had to give my siblings and I the dream home–we grew up in a four-story house equipped with even a back yard.
Yet, despite these humble beginnings, life did not fall in place for us like pieces of a puzzle. In fact, my earliest recollections of my mom are of her being bedridden, tired, and ill. Shortly after we moved in, a series of unfortunate events lead our household from a family of 6 supported by dual incomes to a family of 6 supported by one. And despite my father working 6 days/week, we relied heavily on SNAP benefits to make ends meet.
So let it not be mistaken, both of my parents worked very hard. A common assumption, or stereotype, of receiving public assistance is that those who receive it are “lazy,” but the truth of the matter is that had it not been for these programs, I’m sure there would have been many nights where we would have gone hungry. These programs gave me a chance at a normal childhood; instead of worrying about where my next meal was coming from, I was able to focus on school. So yes, some may argue that poverty and reliance on public assistance is a cycle that’s hard to break free from, but my sisters and I, we are proof that it is possible. And for these programs, I am grateful.
So, how does this relate to Housing Works?
First, you must know that Housing Works is a non-profit organization…they run a chain of thrift stores, bookstores and cafes, whose funds support health care services for one of New York City’s most neglected populations: the tens of thousands of homeless men, women, and children in NYC living with HIV/AIDS.
Many of my clients rely on SNAP benefits or food pantries and that's where I get to use some of my personal experiences to get them motivated for change. My job is to provide one-on-one nutritional counseling or run group classes for these clients. But that’s not the best part. The most rewarding aspect of this job is when I see and hear clients wanting to get better, to start a new life for themselves. When I hear a client spit back a nutrition fact at me, tell me how they’re going to manage their diabetes this week, or wanting to know more tricks on how to stretch their SNAP dollars or prepare healthier meals, I feel like I am making a true difference.
Sure, there are people who the benefits needlessly, but many really do need assistance. Perhaps my childhood story of relying on SNAP benefits may seem far stretched from Housing Work’s mission statement, but I believe that programs like these give people the opportunity to get back on their feet, that people are capable of breaking free from the cycle, and with the right resources and support, they don’t have to be just another statistic.
Here’s How You Can Make a Difference Too (everything counts!)
Donations – Have a sweater in your closet that you haven’t worn in the last year or two? Drop it off at one of the Housing Works’ 12 thrift stores around the city. They also accept furniture, books, movies, and used toys. For details, click here.
Volunteering – Get involved! Where else can you work in a bookstore and give back to the community at the same time?
Buy the Bag – AKA “thrifters heaven,” this is not your typical retail shopping experience. When you visit the Buy the Bag shop in Sunset Park Brooklyn, you get to fill a bag with all the clothes you can for just $25, and know that the funds still go towards a bigger cause.