Nation’s Largest AIDS Wellness Center On The Verge Of Closing
Updated: May 7, 2019
On March 18, Sarina DiBianca put out a call for help. The executive director of Siloam Wellness Center understood that her organization was in trouble and would need the support of their broader community to keep its doors open. DiBianca launched an online fundraising campaign asking for $500,000, roughly two years of operating expenses, to keep the center operating. So far Siloam has raised over $27,000 through the campaign, but the clock is ticking.
Siloam first opened its doors in 1995 on Spring Garden Street, the brainchild of Sister Bernadette Kinniry. She wanted to create a refuge for people living with HIV/AIDS after getting to know a young man afflicted with the disease. She understood the emotional and spiritual hardship that he and others faced living with a life-threatening diagnosis and the stigma associated with the virus. With Father Don Reilly, Sister Bernadette opened Siloam to offer holistic healing.
Siloam Founder Sister Bernadette and President Sarina DiBianca
At the time, treatment options for those living with AIDS were limited. Receiving medical help was made more difficult due to institutional discrimination and prejudices nationwide towards those living with the disease. Funeral homes refused to bury people who had died of AIDS. Medical professionals refused treatment. People risked losing their jobs. Family members with AIDS were forced to eat from paper plates for fear of contagion. Because the virus was primarily spread sexually and through hypodermic needles, many saw the disease as an individual failure, rather than a collective responsibility and blamed people living with AIDS for their own illness. Many people who contracted the disease were gay and/or drug users–two demographics already facing systemic intolerance in the United States. The AIDS crisis only amplified longstanding social inequalities.
Young people with the disease suddenly came face-to-face with their own mortality, while those in the most impacted communities would often attend a funeral a week of those they loved, experiencing constant grief at the continual loss of chosen family. Sister Bernadette saw the need of spiritual support for those living with the disease. While other AIDS outreach organizations focused on medical and social services, Siloam grew to address the spiritual and emotional toll that the disease took, offering clients the tools to heal their mind, body, and spirit as they lived through the trauma.
Siloam was founded by two Catholic leaders, but the organization does not hold to any one religious tradition. It welcomes people of all faiths and the strictly secular. “We take people wherever they come, however they come,” said DiBianca. The center has broken sharply with the conservative and homophobic strains of Catholic tradition. Siloam’s services encourage clients to find spiritual healing in whatever way makes sense to them. The center offers individual and group therapy, reiki and yoga classes, massage, spiritual counseling, and group retreats.
While much has changed in the medical field in the 24 years since Siloam first opened it’s doors, DiBianca insists, “The stigma hasn’t gone anywhere.” Many of the center’s clients survived trauma as children or young adults prior to their diagnosis. Contracting HIV/AIDS can create further isolation and ostracization within their own communities. DiBianca explained, “The suicide rate of people with HIV is double that of people who don’t have HIV. The stigma is still terrible. Many people lived through the pandemic. They lost spouses, they have PTSD and survivor’s guilt, and society is telling them that this is their fault because of using drugs or having unprotected sex.”
The deep psychological and spiritual distress that many people experience living with the virus is why Siloam has continued offering the services they do. While the center’s work is an essential part of holistic healing, it is not easy to find funding. Part of the financial challenge is a problem inherent to Western medicine. Although spiritual healing can make a difference in someone’s physical health, these services are still not fully accepted by standard medical practices or health insurance companies. This means that, while other AIDS service organizations may get reimbursed for giving someone a test or a pill, Siloam cannot get reimbursed for offering reiki or mindfulness retreats. All of Siloam’s programs are free for participants, but, if the center is not receiving financial reimbursements from a third party, it has to rely on gifts and grants to make ends meet.
In early April I visited Siloam to learn more about their work and meet some of the people who use their programs. Everyone I met greeted me with a hug and was happy to sit back and have a leisurely, intimate conversation about their experiences. The environment itself was open and relaxed, full of jokes and affection. It was clearly a space where people were able to talk honestly about the challenges they faced.
John Rosado told me the story of how he first came to the center 13 years ago. “When I found Siloam I was living in hospice. Sister Bernadette came in to speak as she does on many occasions and there was something about her angelic voice that drew me closer and closer.” Rosado learned that he lived around the corner from Siloam and started coming to center for services. “When I first came here it was an extension of my family because I’d just lost my wife after 25 years and I wasn’t sure where I would go,” said Rosado. “I was literally on my deathbed.” Rosado has since left hospice. He volunteered at the center for eight years before returning to school and is currently working towards his masters degree in social work. He still stops by Siloam a few times a week for services and to visit the community he has found there.
Marlene Watson was first referred to Siloam by her doctor, because “this overwhelming anxiety of dying got the best of me and I needed to talk to someone,” she said. The experience changed her life. Watson explained, “Siloam jump-started me back into everything. I was on the road to recovery. I had stayed clean for a substantial amount of time, went back to school, got my high school diploma, went to college, got certified as a peer specialist.” When the time came to find an internship for school, Watson noticed that Siloam had an opening. She returned to the center as an intern and took the opportunity to continue her own healing journey. “My past would sometimes cause the depression. It would come back and shake me,” she said. “It was time to heal.”
Siloam is a second family for many of the people I talked to. Kevin B., who asked to have his last name withheld, explained, “We’re family. We can talk about anything. We can relate to each other. We laugh and cry together. It breaks up the monotony of dealing with the pressures of being in places where you don’t feel wanted. You don’t feel like you belong. Here it’s the total opposite. You feel like you have a reason, a purpose for being here.” Kevin has not told his family about his diagnosis because he believes that they will not respond well. Outside of Siloam, his medical and emotional journey is one where he is completely alone. The center has given him the community that he has not found elsewhere. He explained, “The stigma is still there, and to come to a place where you don’t have to worry about that, where nobody is judging anybody, you can just be you. You can be comfortable, relax. I’m home with my friends and family.”
Rosado agreed. “It’s the only place you can walk into, not know anybody, and 20 minutes later you know them like you’ve known them for years. It took me 10 to 15 minutes to get camaraderie with these guys, because we all know we’re all coming from the same place.”
As financial pressures create an uncertain future for the organization, DiBianca remains optimistic. In addition to money coming in from the online fundraising campaign, the center has received offline donations, including a $20,000 check in early April. DiBianca’s current plan is what she calls a “2020 plan.” “I need 20 people who can match that $20,000. That will fund us through the year 2020,” she said. In addition to paying for Siloam’s operating budget, she hopes that meeting her goal will allow the organization to hire a grant writer to help with fundraising and development.
DiBianca has many stories about the center’s clients. People who stopped needing regular hospitalizations after receiving Siloam’s services, people who have gone to work addressing HIV/AIDS in their communities, people who have returned to school, and, above all, people who have found physical and spiritual health in a community that has delivered them from pain. “How do you put a price tag on that?,” said DiBianca.
By, Ali Roseberry-Polier