When Plus caught up with Danny Harris he was apologetic for having been unavailable. Work had been exceptionally busy for him and each night afterwards he had been driving out to a small town in rural Arkansas and back in order to volunteer at a food pantry for residents with HIV. He wasn't making it home until late at night and he was exhausted.
Those who know him say Harris often gives of himself this way, going above the call of duty to help others. A co-worker, known only as “Miss Princess,” nominated Harris for the Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016 list and describes him as “a wonderful role model for clients, who facilitates support groups and meetings ... among other things. Danny is a wonderful person [who] is full of motivation and compassion and leads by example. He has turned his HIV status into something positive, not only for himself, but for others too.”
Harris is a statewide outreach and prevention coordinator for ARcare HIV Special Services, which provides comprehensive medical care at 36 community health clinics and 14 Ryan White case management offices throughout Arkansas. When Harris began this work in 2011, no one else was doing that kind of work in the state. After two years of meeting HIV-positive people from around the state and networking with local HIV organizations, it became clear to him that needs were going unmet. In particular, Harris believed Arkansas needed to make routine HIV testing available, and to create a statewide support network that could connect those living with or working on HIV issues in their local areas with others throughout the state.
Harris says he was thrilled — and enormously proud — that ARcare and the Arkansas Department of Health not only listened to his list of issues but allowed him to develop programs to solve those unmet needs. He established the Positive Empowerment Project (PEP), which now has nine Empowerment support groups for HIV-positive people and their supporters (two more will be added this fall) in various parts of the state. Harris writes and produces the Positive Empowerment Newsletter and says he’s especially proud when he thinks of all the work case managers have done to cultivate interest and circulate the newsletter throughout the state.
In addition, because of Harris, ARcare now offers free routine testing in all 14 of their Ryan White case management offices, along with several other locations — including in areas that testing hadn’t always been available in the past. “When I consider where this work began in 2011 and where it is now in 2016,” Harris muses, “I am moved with overwhelming joy and pride. God has blessed me with such an awesome team to work with.”
Those who who’ve known Harris his whole life aren’t surprised he’s successful met the needs he had cataloged. He prides himself with always being able to find a solution to any puzzle or challenge. Sure, he admits, he’s stumbled; and even fallen a time or two, but he’d always been able to get right back up, brush off, and “make my way around the issue.”
At least he’d been able to, before he learned of his HIV diagnosis. HIV, Harris says, was the first obstacle he couldn't “fix.”
“I couldn't ignore it,” he explains now. “[I couldn’t] pretend it didn't exist, or repair it. The feeling of hopelessness from that one fact alone caused me to retreat and contemplate surrender.”
Feeling powerless was such a new thing for him, it led him into the “darkness” of depression. “I became so lonely and believed that it was a struggle that I'd endure forever alone,” Harris recalls. “The darkness of my diagnosis had nothing to do with the virus itself, because I never had extreme health issues of any kind. I felt purposeless and insignificant.”
Harris says in the midst of that crisis, “I made decisions I regret to this day. I slowly allowed HIV to take pieces of my life until I didn't have much left and was on the edge of a sea of despair. I struggled with the darkness of my diagnosis for almost two years before I found anyone to help me [find] my way through.”
He describes coming out of that darkness, in 2010, as an “awakening” that “allowed me to rebuild my life and reclaim purpose and significance in my life again.” He is finding that purpose in shining a light for those still trapped in the darkness, still struggling with their own diagnoses. Over the next few years, he says he wants to find more ways to accomplish this goal. He plans to continue expanding PEP statewide so no one in Arkansas has to feel alone in their “positive life.” He’ll continue sharing his HIV message through the Positive Empowerment Newsletter. And, he adds, “I will continue to test people because I have found my way through and have strength to loan them until they can stand on their own.”
As a newly married man, Harris says he also wants to “experience as much of life with my new wife and daughter as I possibly can. I want to bring joy and safety to them. I want to enable them to live their dreams and produce the same joy in their lives that I've come to know.”