A story by Renee Baker, Edge Publications, Oct 21, 2008.
What would you do if you were just diagnosed with possibly the worst illness of your life – human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV? If you were gay and not out to your family, where would you turn to for emotional support and counseling? For almost 20 years, people have been sent straight to the Legacy Counseling Center of Dallas, right from their doctors’ offices.
Legacy was founded in 1989, a grass-roots nonprofit organization started by a small group of individuals living with AIDS. As such, they have a frugal approach to mental health care delivering top quality services at rock bottom prices. Today, they are the largest provider of HIV counseling in North Texas.
Melissa Grove is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Executive Director at Legacy. She became the second intern at Legacy in 1991, when AIDS was still considered a “gay disease” and the year Magic Johnson announced he had HIV. Grove says we have come a long way since then, but discrimination against people with HIV is still prevalent. People from Oklahoma and from rural Texas areas drive for hours to see their counselors at Legacy, which has a staff of 20 employees. Many clients are too afraid to come out about their HIV status, so they tell others they have leukemia as a red herring.
Grove says the majority of their clients are LGBT and 99.9% of them are HIV-positive. They come to Legacy because they know they will find acceptance there. They won’t have to face any bigoted counselors who according to Grove, have been known to tell Legacy clients, “Of course you have AIDS, it is God’s wrath on gay people.”
At Legacy, you see a friendly face at every corner. Turnover is low and counselors work for a fraction of what they could earn elsewhere.
Legacy fills a niche – they are small, flexible and in an emergency, their door is open. Other agencies have a waiting list of six weeks, says Grove. At Legacy, clients can be seen in the same day. Grove says Legacy is not a government organization that gets wrapped up in the numbers. “Every person’s problems are important here.” she says. “We haven’t lost our personal touch – we have a family feel, but are very professional.” Grove says that because they are a small organization, they can tailor their approach to each client, rather than placing clients into a predetermined format of care – a format that often leaves clients out on the street.
Grove says “the system” is flawed. After clients are diagnosed with HIV, they are left with paying for expensive medications. According to Grove, “There comes a day when you can longer afford the co-pays.” She says many clients have to become destitute just to afford the life-saving medications. Grove also says many Parkland patients are not treated with proper health care. She says many clients that should be placed in HIV programs have been placed in hospice instead, because hospital workers just want to get these clients “out of their hair.”
In 1996, Legacy opened The Cottage in Oak Cliff. Counselors would call their clients, but they were too sick to come in. Grove says, “These individuals were dying in a place with nobody to care for them. They were soiled and couldn’t reach a glass of water. Alone and dying is really bad.” Legacy decided to open a home to care for AIDS clients at the end of their life cycles. Grove says some clients, who have never been loved, find a universal acceptance and are, in a sad way, the happiest they have ever been.
The Cottage also cares for those with episodic illnesses, who are nursed back to health. The alternative, Grove says, is for them to go to emergency rooms, where they are often neglected. The Cottage has seven private bedrooms that are full most of the time. There are two full-time nurse aids during the day and one during the night.
In 1999, when Oak Lawn Community Services closed, Legacy retained most of their counselors. At that time, Legacy absorbed the OLCS mental health program and started a substance abuse program. Counselors are paid by the session today, and many have private practices on the side to make ends meet. That is perhaps not surprising as Grove mentions that “Texas is second to the bottom on mental health and substance abuse spending.”
Today, Legacy is largely funded by the Ryan White Care Act and Texas State funding. They also receive much of their housing funding through HUD and HOPWA. Grove is grateful that the GLBT community and organizations like Black Tie and DIFFA have been so supportive. She says they “give, give, give, give, and give…it’s just astounding”.
Many clients live out their entire disease process while at Legacy, often having the same counselor through the entire course. Some begin by coming out to their families at Legacy and telling them they are gay. For some, it is a time of reunion for families as well, who have been estranged until the crisis of HIV brings them together again. For others, it is one-on-one counseling or group therapy.
Legacy also holds an HIV+ Women’s Retreat. Last year, there were 150 in attendance with Magic Johnson’s wife Cookie participating in the retreat. Grove says the retreat has educational seminars, guest speakers, information booths, bonding and fun girl stuff. She says the retreat really helps the women turn towards each other for support and keeps them connected to vital services.
Legacy is having their Annual Stocking Auction on December 14th at the Roundup Saloon on Cedar Springs. The auction is supported by local businesses donating baskets, wreaths, stockings and entertainment. The Roundup has been especially supportive after one of their employees passed away while at The Cottage.
Grove is grateful that Legacy is able to really care for their clients and give them the respect and dignity that we all deserve. After all, she says, “If you can’t feel human in a counseling center, when can you feel human.”
The Counseling Center is in need of volunteers, especially individuals able to adopt an evening a month at The Cottage, to bring dinner for seven.
More information about Legacy is available at www.legacycounseling.com.
For more on this story, see here.