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River to Renewal

River to Renewal


It had been far too long since Howard Pickens had done anything just for himself. A single father of four children who are nearly grown, he spent most of his time and energy caring for them. Last year the Pickenses were living in Spanaway, Wash., when Howard heard about an all-HIVer sea-kayaking trip through the San Juan Islands'the lushly green gems of land nestled throughout Puget Sound. But despite his critical vacation deficit, Pickens was reluctant to leave home. His children told him to get lost. 'My life has been pretty much raising the kids,' says Pickens, who has been HIV-positive since 1991. The trip 'got me out to spread my wings a little bit in a more social and intimate setting with other people.' The organization that arranged the getaway is San Francisco'based Healing Waters. October marks the group's 10th anniversary of arranging wilderness expeditions that, according to the organization's mission statement, serve 'to empower, inspire, and enrich the lives of people challenging AIDS.' It took a brush with HIV to first inspire Healing Waters founder Cale Siler into going down the river. When he was 23 he became convinced he had the virus. When he ultimately learned he didn't, he decided to create an organization to help people who are dealing with HIV take a break from the kinds of stress he experienced when he thought he was infected. He began by leading white-water rafting expeditions in Northern California along the South Fork of the American River, which is the main attraction of the organization's wilderness opportunities. Working Wonders Now a medical student, Siler recently set out to prove that these trips really do heal the soul. In 2005 he conducted a survey of Healing Waters participants through the University of Rochester, finding that after a weekend trip participants experienced a 38% decrease in depression, a 27% increase in vitality, and a 28% increase in perceived mental health. Healing Waters manages to work these miracles'serving approximately 350 people this year'thanks to help from a vast community of volunteers. With just two full-time staff members, the group boasts approximately 70 volunteers who work on the trips to guide the rafts, pitch the tents, and cook meals. Altogether, nearly 180 volunteers have a hand in sorting the administrative nitty-gritties of the nonprofit organization. In addition to sea kayaking and rafting, Healing Waters arranges day hikes and wintertime cross-country ski trips. It also runs a white-water kayaking camp for HIV-positive teens from around the country. The organization's efforts have also recently expanded into central California. Charitable donations from individuals and businesses alike allow the group to keep prices to a bare minimum (overnight trips go for $50, and day trips cost $20 or less). Besides fund-raising events, Healing Waters schedules three benefit trips every year, two to Northern California and one to either the San Juan Islands or more distant Costa Rica. 'It helps me to just slow down,' says Stephanie DeLucca, who has gone on various trips over the past seven years. 'It feels really good because you don't really think that you have that available to yourself financially'and in such a supportive way. They really take care of you. They treat you like princesses or kings or queens.' Voyage of Discovery While the famed lyrics 'If I can make it here, I'll make it anywhere' may be about the very urban setting of New York City, they apply just as well to the outdoor inspiration that Healing Waters participants glean from their time away from the comfort zone of home. 'A lot of the time I get people who are nervous and hesitant to come because they're afraid that they won't be able to handle it,' program director Rob Everett says. 'And then they experience it and really surprise themselves with how much physical ability they still have. I've heard several times that 'I've learned I can trust my body again.' ' 'And 'life changing,' ' Everett says, 'is a phrase that comes up.' Case in point: a man who had been bedridden for 10 years and had just begun using a walker attended a trip to the San Juans. 'All of a sudden,' Everett continues, 'he's sea kayaking for three days!' On the same trip a legally blind man was wrestling with whether to wear a new pair of glasses that would allow him to see again; he was reluctant to step out of the shell of blindness to which he had become accustomed. He finally put them on and, according to Everett, 'he could see an orca whale swimming beneath his boat. He couldn't see anything before that.' His eyes opened, the man now wears his glasses all the time. Breaking Barriers The organization also provides the benefit of a safe haven for a group of HIVers either to share their common experiences or to learn about new ones and to bond with one another in the process. Chris Wright, a Seattleite who lives in transitional housing for HIVers, was thrilled to go on his first sea-kayaking trip in the San Juans this summer, although he was the lone heterosexual male in the group. 'It was fun,' Wright says. 'It changed my perception of gay people because we all got along well. There was no back-talking and none of that bickering or stuff like that [that people from different backgrounds can often fall into]. I felt confident.' San Rafael, Calif., resident Will Boemer saw a new side of HIV on one Healing Waters trip when another participant shared his experience of being coinfected with hepatitis C. 'I hadn't really thought about the issues of that in conjunction with possible needle sharing or drug use,' says Boemer, whose Bay Area HIV community group, ThrivingSF, has gone on several Healing Waters excursions. Weighty subject matters aside, the main goal of trips is to have a blast while blasting down the river. Pickens, who recently moved to San Francisco after his youngest child left home, spoke barely above a whisper during a subdued telephone interview a few days before he left for a July weekend trip to the American River. But on the Monday after his return he sounded like a kid just home from camp as he rattled off the details of his trip with robust eagerness. Before the trip he'd said obligations loomed larger than the promise of a good time, so he was reluctant to go at all. Afterward, he was so enthusiastic about the experience that he was planning for a reprise. 'I came away from this experience wanting to ask my family to come down from Washington, and I was ready to say to them, 'It's time we go rafting!'

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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