Sunnie Rose Woman of the Month

Jamuary 31, 2008 -
By Nicole Joseph

Sunnie RoseIn 2005, Sunnie Rose and fellow HIV/AIDS advocate Ric Parish saw a gap in services for HIV-positive people in Los Angeles. So they rallied local volunteers and cofounded the Life Group LA to provide supportive programming for people living with and affected by HIV. The organization’s main event is the POZ* Life Weekend Seminar; the first of these in 2005 had more than 80 participants and 22 volunteers. “It was an affirmation that there was still a huge need in the community and that we had the support to be able to pull it off,” says Rose, who is HIV-negative. Since then, she has worked to pull off four seminars a year, along with innovative fund-raising initiatives that have won numerous awards, including the 2007 WeHo (West Hollywood) award for outstanding community organization.

How did you first become involved in HIV/AIDS advocacy?

In 1990 or 1991, I became a member of the Los Angeles Gay Rodeo Association. I started making a lot of new friends and all of a sudden people started getting really ill and dying. Some friends and I would visit these people in the hospitals. Some of them had big families but weren’t supported—they hadn’t even disclosed that they were gay, let alone that they were HIV positive. Other people had disclosed their status, but their family members were afraid to come visit. So a couple of gals and I would go around and visit our friends and crawl in bed with them. We just didn’t want people to be alone and isolated.

That was my mindset at the time. I had been working in law, but I realized there was another, bigger calling for me to support the community. I thought, I don’t want anybody to ever be alone; I don’t want anyone to ever lose faith or hope. So I quit law and started working in nonprofit.

What is the purpose of your seminars?

The weekends create a matrix of healing including education, emotional support and community building. We do four seminars per year. We provide 13 or 14 different presentations throughout a weekend on different topics so people have the information to make important choices about their health care, their well-being, finances and spirituality. We also have breakout emotional support groups. We typically have between 40 and 70 people at each seminar, and it never fails: People create a bond throughout the weekend, a little community. They may have met 10 or 15 people that they clicked with, and now they have lunch together every week. They’re no longer feeling alone and isolated.

How do you tailor the seminars so that everyone who attends can relate to them?

The seminars address the needs of people who have been living a long time with HIV as well as those who are newly diagnosed. The epidemic has changed significantly in the last 20 years. The need for education was different in the very beginning—it was how to prepare your will and things like that. Now it’s more financial planning and estate planning.

The best thing about our program is that there is no demographic boundary. Our programs [are diverse]—we have yoga sessions, programs on adherence, art and music therapy, healing drum circles, insurance and public benefits sessions, sex and intimacy programs and sessions about faith, to name a few. We don’t advocate for any one treatment or push any agenda.

The people who come are gay, straight and of every ethnicity. There are those who are newly diagnosed and long-term survivors. There are also people who are HIV negative, because part of the support comes from people who may not be positive but are still part of your support system. Now, more and more, we’re seeing a lot of serodiscordant couples. We get 18-year-olds to 70-year-olds, men and women… it just runs the gamut. There is always somebody at the seminar that somebody else is going to be able connect with, and that’s what makes the weekends so powerful.

Do you have any plans to expand the program beyond Los Angeles?

This year actually marks our first time—we’re finally taking our program on the road, and in March, we’re going to Palm Springs! We’re collaborating with the Desert AIDS Project and AIDS Assistance Program, as well as a couple of our pharmaceutical supporters. We’re taking 24 volunteers on the road with us. I’m really excited. We need to teach more people how to create these workshops. Hopefully this will catch on and other organizations across the United States will be interested in learning the program and how to make it happen.

The programs are offered free of charge. How do you cover the costs?

The city of LA has given us a couple of grants for the workshops in the city. Otherwise, we’re not government-funded. We host the program wherever we can get a free venue with room to seat at least 60 or 70 people and five smaller rooms for the breakout support groups. Most of our funds come from two fund-raisers we do through the year: our Angels in LA Awards ceremony, and an event we call Saddle up LA, which is the first-ever AIDS benefit horseback trail ride. We’re also supported by pharmaceutical companies who bring in important presentations on topics such as adherence, or understanding your labs. They also help us by sponsoring the lunches.

Describe your typical day. Is working with Life Group LA your full-time job?

[Laughs] It’s like two full-time jobs. Seven days a week, 14 hours a day. I’m obsessed with making this organization’s foundation solid. I live on a ranch with horses, so my typical day is that I get up at 6, feed the horses, feed the dogs, come back in the house and sit in front of my computer in yesterday’s makeup, sweatpants and a sweatshirt… and I collaborate and create. I look for sponsors and partnerships, I create workshops and I just try to make a difference.

What keeps you motivated?

The expression of love and gratitude that I feel from every single client and volunteer. [I’m motivated] when somebody comes in with a face full of fear, not looking up or making eye contact, and [after the weekend], they’re completely and utterly transformed, laughing, networking and making eye contact. I get chills every time I think about it.

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