The Circle of Care Initiative is trying to close the gap for women living with HIV in Toronto. After the closure of Voices for Positive Women (VOPW) in 2012, the AIDS Bureau reallocated funds to designated AIDS Services Organizations (ASOs) to stabilize, strengthen and expand programmes for HIV positive women across a network of services though collaborative programming.
The Circle of Care Initiative is made up of five agencies namely; Toronto People with AIDS Foundation (PWA), Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (BlackCAP), AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT), Teresa Group and PASAN.
PWA is responsible for the Peer Support Program. Building on PWA’s long history of utilizing peer based programming as an incredibly powerful way to impact HIV support and care; the goals of the program are to train a strong team of compassionate and knowledgeable women and Trans women living with HIV. Peer Workers go into the community to provide one-on-one supports with the objective being to build on the value, impact, and benefit that can be experienced by women living with HIV when they are able to receive support from other HIV+ women.
The program has been very successful in connecting clients with services, be it be through accompaniment to appointments, advocacy, interpretation, or service navigation. It is because of the contributions our valued donors that PWA is able to continue to offer these types of programs that help connect individuals to each other.
But don’t take our word for it – we asked a few of our peer mentors to share their stories:
“The program has been important to me and I guess it stems back to when I actually worked full time in the field. I worked at an organization that worked with women who lived in the streets and in particular, a lot of girls were positive as well. For some of these girls it might as well have been 1984 all over again because they did not get the support that they needed. This program helps me do that kind of support because the girl I work with needs some real concrete physical support. She needs someone to help her get around, remember times and get to her appointments, help her get to her parents, walk with her and her dog – something a worker in the office could never help her with” – S.H.
“As a peer mentor for the Circle of Care Initiative, I have aided other women cope with HIV, emphasizing hope, personal responsibility, and offer peers ways to manage their health more effectively. By sharing my experiences, challenges and successes, I became a very supportive companion to them. I am greatly fulfilled and exceptionally rewarded by this experience. As a peer mentor, I assisted one lady who lived in isolation due to fear and stigma around HIV/AIDS. I managed to connect her to women’s groups, where she learnt from other women’s experiences. The lady was also going through immigration problems and she was at the edge of deportation. As a peer supporter. I assisted her to seek immediate legal advice, and immigration supports. ” D.C.
“This program in a few sentences has given me power to build my skills in different categories as well as be involved in GIPA and MIPA Principle (Greater and Meaningful involvement of people living with HIV/AIDS). I have been able to help other peers who needed support in different languages mainly French, English, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Lingala and Kirundi. The Impact of this program for me is it helped me to get out of isolation, loneliness, stigma and discrimination. I feel like it changed my life and made me a leader in the community” S.M.
The program is helping connect otherwise isolated women navigate services and get some respite in their day to day lives. We have seen more women interested in accessing other services at PWA – like our therapeutic services, nursing clinic, and Essentials Market – who otherwise would not have, either because they were not aware of the services or they were self-conscious. Being open and disclosing has encouraged some women to live their most authentic lives because they see their peers living openly.
“I feel the space is inclusive and safe for all women. I am happy to see trans-women, women who are indigenous, and without citizenship status being part of the team to connect and get support” – Program participant
“Most women living with HIV are no longer in self- pity or denial, and some women have gone ahead with having babies, others are progressing with their education and careers which is fulfilling to me” – Program Client
“I feel more informed about HIV and the law, and what key issues involved in the criminalization of non-disclosure.” – Program participant
“ I was lonely and isolated and used to stay indoors most of the times. I came to PWA and the interim coordinator introduced me to the Women’s nursing clinic happening every first and third Wednesdays of every month and also the therapy clinics. Since then I have friends, increased self-esteem, confidence and a robust health.