Volunteer Spotlight—Marge Riley!

Before coming to AHP, Riley had combed the Yellow Pages—i.e. an actual book of business contact information—had called the many AIDS organizations she could identify, and finally chose AHP as the site of her clinical internship. When AHP program psychologist, David Silven, PhD, called Riley back, it was to tell her about AHP’s fledgling program. Riley chose us as much as we chose her and, with nine other interns, inaugurated a program that became not only one of the models for peer-to-peer support but also a replication of a crucial tool within the epidemic: the creation of caring communities—the tight team of nine volunteers—of frontline workers.

Marge Riley didn’t set out to be an expert in LGBTQ mental health. In 1994, when she joined AHP’s first “class” of clinical interns, she worried that a straight older woman like her might not be accepted by the community. Twenty-three years later, Riley remains one of AHP’s longest-serving volunteer group facilitators, using her clinical skills to help a group of clients negotiate the challenge of living with HIV. At a time when the boundaries between “us” and “them” seem enormous, Riley stands as an embodiment of allyship, the place where such distinctions fall away.

A native San Franciscan, Riley was deeply affected by the epidemic, which was decimating the city. In 1994, more than a thousand people died of AIDS in San Francisco and more than two thousand people were newly infected with HIV. She was determined to do something about it. Her decision to become a therapist was as much about helping people deal with HIV/AIDS as it was about anything else. But she was concerned about fitting into the gay community as a provider who did not share the same sexuality or experiences as her clients.

The intern group—with Silven’s leadership—began learning together. At first, interns undertook only “clinical intakes,” the initial meeting with a client when an AHP staff member determines what service will most assist the client. Eventually, Riley and her colleagues started seeing clients for therapy. Riley ended up staying through two cycles of the program, getting her license and forging a life-long practice of treating people with HIV, both professionally and as a volunteer. And a bonus was her decades long friendship with her supervisor Silven and some of the people in her internship. Riley has marshaled that experience, working for other non-profits and fashioning a lively private practice serving LGBTQ people, both with and without HIV, in San Francisco and the East Bay.

Riley insists that the ability to listen, to witness a client’s story, is the most essential ingredient as a peer facilitator. And according to Riley, it’s what peer facilitators are trained to do and what they get very good at. Riley gets a lot of satisfaction watching clients whose first meetings are marked by reserve; begin to thaw, to connect, to trust that the facilitators and other group members are there to support them. It is from that place of mutual agreement and trust that they begin to make the changes they need to make and become healthier and happier.

Such is Riley’s wisdom, a testament to her capacity and perseverance, and to the clients and staff at AHP who attract and support such gifted volunteers.