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Retreats and resources

Grateful Day Foundation provides fellowship and help for Tulsa’s HIV/AIDS community

Paul McClure, Jeff Tarwater-McClure, Chuck Courtney, Elroy Avery, and Scottie Archerbald

Greg Bollinger

Jeff Tarwater doesn’t remember the summer of 2012. He was very sick. He regularly lost consciousness. He fought with anyone who tried to get him to a doctor. But Jeff only knows this secondhand. Paul McClure, Jeff’s partner of four years, said it was obvious that he needed help.

“I found him for the third or fourth time face down in the front yard,” McClure said. “He argued with me, would swing at me.”

McClure called one of Tarwater’s friends from beauty college. When she arrived, they argued. He swore at her, something very rare for him, but she and McClure managed to get him to the hospital.

“I don’t remember anything,” Tarwater said. “I don’t remember any of the last part of June, July, August, or September. I don’t remember swinging at him. That’s not me. That’s not who I am.”

The diagnosis came back: AIDS.

“I was diagnosed in 2012. By 2013, I didn’t leave my house,” Tarwater said. “I stayed on the couch, basically.”

That all changed when a nurse at the OSU Medical Center told Jeff about a yearly retreat for people living with HIV/AIDS.

“She says, ‘Hey! You need to go to this retreat, it’s through Grateful Day.’”

Tarwater had never heard of the Grateful Day Foundation, but with a push from McClure, he decided to go. Things were rough at first.

“By the time dark hit, I was on the phone crying. I said, ‘Come get me. I can’t do this. I don’t know why I even tried.’ On the other end he says, ‘I love you with all my heart. And I’m not coming to get you. You’re better off where you’re at.’”

But Tarwater made it through the night, and by the end of the second day, he decided to stay for the whole retreat. By the end of the third, he knew he had to be a part of Grateful Day because of the acceptance and community he found.

Chuck Courtney, co-founder and president of Grateful Day, has been running the retreat for six years. He says fear and shame are common reactions to an AIDS or HIV diagnosis, which can keep people from seeking help.

“They think we’re still back in the days of going to the AIDS hospice to die,” Courtney said. “We’re not there. People can go into the hospice with an AIDS diagnosis and come out in six months and be undetectable.”

(Undetectable means a viral load less than 30, a status that many HIV and AIDS patients achieve through medication and careful attention to their health.)

The Grateful Day Foundation was founded to host the retreat in 2011, after the church that had previously hosted closed its doors. The Foundation has held the retreat annually since then, and participation has increased every year. They started with 18 attendees. This year they had 70. Next year they want 100.

Visitors enjoy typical campground activities like volleyball and kayaking. The retreat also offers informational talks, workshops for the HIV-negative partners of HIV-positive people, a chiropractor, and even spiritual support. It isn’t all business, though; the retreat includes a movie screening, manicures, and even massages. More importantly, the retreat offers a place for fellowship that is free of shame and judgement. The retreat serves people from all around Oklahoma and several neighboring states.

The Foundation has also expanded in an effort to cover gaps in services provided by other nonprofits. The Foundation provides counseling for newly diagnosed patients, resource counseling, access to transportation, and education.

Education can be lifesaving for someone living with HIV or AIDS, Courtney said.

“Right now, we’re looking at people living much longer lives on antiretroviral drugs. Life expectancy is normal.”

Grateful Day also helps facilitate communication between nonprofits. “It used to be a lot of agencies didn’t really tell you about the other agencies,” Courtney said.

Nonprofits are indispensable to the Oklahoma HIV/AIDS community. State and municipal funding for this type of work is meager at best, even with almost 1500 cases of HIV/AIDS in Tulsa County alone. Proper education is also hard to come by in Oklahoma because of the laws restricting sex education.

“You can say, ‘This is HIV. It’s a sexually transmitted infection,’” Courtney said. “You can’t say, ‘If you stick a penis in your mouth, you might get HIV.’”

But even with the challenges the foundation faces, Courtney sees a bright future and opportunity for growth. The five-year plan for the Foundation includes a five-state retreat, a mentor program, and more collaboration between nonprofits.

And for Tarwater, now an active volunteer with the group, the Foundation was a lifesaver.

“If it hadn’t been for Grateful Day, I really believe that I would have committed suicide,” he said.

More information about Grateful Day Foundation can be found at gratefulday.org.

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