Volunteer Spotlight: John Johnson

“Being an AHP emotional support volunteer helped me stay grounded and kept my mind off of my own precarious—yet unknown at the time—HIV status,” John Johnson said as he narrated a history going back 30 years which eventually led to an HIV diagnosis and a volunteer gig at AHP that continues to this day. For people like Johnson, long-term survivors and long-term volunteers, AHP plays a double-role: delivering crucial emotional support and mental health care while offering the ongoing opportunity not only to give back to AHP, but more importantly, to find a new place for themselves in the community.

In 1984, early in the epidemic, things were spinning out of control with mysterious illnesses leading to swift deaths among so many gay men and Johnson’s colleagues and lovers were among the fallen. Johnson felt he had to do something to help his peers: he signed up for the Shanti Project’s emotional support buddy training. Soon after, he was spending his evenings and weekends as a volunteer buddy for people with AIDS, in most cases, keeping them company as they approached the last days of their lives.  

Later, Carol Kleinmaier, who transferred to AHP, along with Shanti’s groups program, asked Johnson to become a support group facilitator. Following the weekend-long training, Johnson worked with Kleinmaier for a year while facilitating a support group for men with HIV/AIDS at the Most Holy Redeemer Parish in San Francisco.

In 1994 HIV/AIDS support groups were still held inside people’s homes: as AHP could not house in our offices all the groups necessary to accommodate the tremendous need, and even with groups overflowing into people’s homes, there were often more than 20 people in each group. Because men were dying at such an alarming rate, group facilitators would watch as their entire group would turn over every six months, and during nearly every weekly group meeting, members would acknowledge a recent death, another funeral. If dealing with the challenges of a life threatening, infectious disease, for which there was no effective treatment, was enough to keep most group facilitators inundated, watching so many die was a constant stressor. It becomes even more challenging when a facilitator is coping with an HIV-positive diagnosis themself.

Johnson did know he was positive, and came to AHP to test for HIV in 1986 for confirmation. Even though he had predicted the result, it was devastating. But Johnson knew what to do. And soon after, he joined an AHP support group, which helped him heal and become more honest and emotionally courageous.

We are fortunate that AHP’s volunteer facilitators are so devoted to our clients. The facilitators are deep listeners who, with grace and generosity hold a space for all the pain while they bear witness to the inner-most challenges, thoughts and feelings of their group members. Fortunately, facilitators also have a place to discuss their experiences with their peers at AHP’s monthly volunteer facilitator consult group, led (and catered!) by AHP Groups Program Coordinator, Barton Shulman, LPCC, who is the buffer that supports facilitators. According to Johnson, “There is so much wisdom shared” at the monthly consult group “I look forward to it each and every month.”

After nearly 25 years as a volunteer at AHP, Johnson still looks forward to his group each week, in no small measure because AHP ensures that facilitators are not on their own. And even if the issues people living with HIV face have changed—challenges related to aging, medications, dating, work, money—rather than the fears of the unknown, of death and dying, that used to be routine, Johnson says, “I am still so honored to be a witness to the grace and courage that the members display. “ And at AHP, even after nearly 34 years, we know that our success in serving our community is linked not only to the expertise and passion of staff, but also, and critically, to the commitment and wisdom of volunteers like John Johnson.