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    In Case You Missed It

    By Joanie Juster–

    New Year, New Name, New Stories

    The New Year is a good time for a fresh look. When I started writing this column in October, it was called “In the News.” But it turned out that name didn’t quite fit, since I tend to write about things that, well, that you might have otherwise missed. Therefore, welcome to “In Case You Missed It.”

    2021 was full of challenges of every kind, and 2022 already promises to be a doozy. It’s easy to become discouraged by the division and discord all around us. But also, at every turn there are good people and organizations doing extraordinary, selfless work to make our world safer, brighter, healthier, and more fabulous. So, in case you missed it, here are two such stories.

    A Legend Retires

    In 1997 a new volunteer started helping with client services at the AIDS Emergency Fund. The work was hard: AEF was often the last resort for people in financial distress because they were disabled by HIV/AIDS, living on a tiny disability income that was wildly inadequate for the financial realities of San Francisco. Clients would arrive at AEF facing potential eviction, utilities shut-offs, or other pressing financial emergencies. They were often feeling distraught, helpless, confused.

    That volunteer, Lee Harrington, knew he could put both his library training and his OCD to good use helping clients get their paperwork in order so that AEF could fulfill its mission of providing quick, compassionate emergency financial assistance. Lee fulfilled that mission so well that AEF hired him. And for the next 24 years, Lee was the first person clients saw when they walked in the door at AEF (then PRC, after AEF became a program of PRC in 2016). Lee retired on December 31, after 24 years of invaluable service.

    I’ve had the privilege of working with Lee for many of those years, since that first day in 1997. He is at the top of my list of personal heroes, efficiently and compassionately helping people day after day, year after year, with no fuss or fanfare. He has also mentored many others, as well as helping to get Breast Cancer Emergency Fund started in 2001 by offering training and guidance to its client services staff.

    At Lee’s retirement party on December 18, Mike Smith, who as Executive Director of AEF was Lee’s boss for 13 years, eloquently summed up Lee’s impact on the community:

    “Over the past 24 years, tens of thousands of people living with AIDS have sat in the chair across from Lee and done the hardest thing: they asked for help. Lee comforted them, took care of their needs, and got to know them. And when they came back, he knew them by their face.

    Just like so many of us Lee started volunteering because of a personal loss. First it was a job. Then it was a career. But all along it has been a vocation. Helping people with AIDS with their needs has been his life’s work.”

    Join me in thanking Lee for his years of service. He has earned a long and happy retirement! (You can read a recent interview with Lee on PRC’s website here: https://tinyurl.com/LeeHaPRC )

    Who Can You Call? LGBT National Help Center

    It goes without saying that this is a challenging time for many, and on top of other problems, LGBTQ+ folks may face loneliness, isolation, and family issues. Fortunately, the LGBT National Help Center is here to help, operating three national hotlines—the LGBT National Hotline, the LGBT National Youth Talkline, and the LGBT National Senior Hotline—as well as private, volunteer one-to-one online chat, that helps both youth and adults with coming-out issues, safer-sex information, school bullying, family concerns, relationship problems, and much more.

    These vital services are provided on a shoestring, with 90% of their income provided by individual donations. Their executive director, Aaron Almanza, told me for the San Francisco Bay Times, “I just want to hug everyone who calls.” He commended callers for being so brave, by taking this huge step for themselves. Many are calling at the worst point in their lives; often they live in rural and conservative parts of the country and are feeling severely isolated, closeted and despairing, with literally no one safe to talk to. But after calling the Help Center, they know they are not alone.

    The most heart-wrenching feature on their website is the escape button. Aaron said that people often don’t have a safe place from which to call or to research their issues, so if someone walks in on them while they are on the website, the escape button wipes their screen clean in one click. Aaron said he learned about escape buttons from a women’s resource center. He said, “I learned coding just to do that one thing.”

    Aaron wanted to highlight one more point: Allies are also encouraged to call. Many people are familiar with PFLAG’s excellent work, but PFLAG doesn’t provide a hotline. Friends and family often have questions about how to talk to their LGBTQ+ loved ones, which language to use, and more.

    The Help Center’s team of highly-trained volunteers field as many as 500 calls per week. If you’re wondering where your donation dollars would be well-spent, read their statement: “Our young people (and even those well into their lives) continue to have to live through the ignorance, fear, and hatred still expressed by so many. But know this, for those facing discrimination at work, bullying at school, or harassment from family, we are here for you. For those questioning their gender or sexuality, we are here for you. For those looking for information on safer-sex and HIV, we are here for you. For those looking for a local resource near to them, we are here for you. And for those who need to know they are being heard, that they matter, and that they are loved, we are here for you.” https://www.glbthotline.org/contact.html

    New Year, New Laws

    The new year brings new laws, and new legal battles defending LGBTQ+ rights. It is important to know your rights, and also how they are either being strengthened or threatened. Lambda Legal’s website features comprehensive pages on legal rights          ( https://tinyurl.com/2pdtwdfh ). The ACLU also provides a detailed list, updated weekly, of bills that would affect LGBTQ+ and other rights. With midterm elections coming up in November, it is critical to keep up on what our lawmakers are proposing. https://tinyurl.com/ACLUleglist

    Are you Registered? Elections Ahead

    San Franciscans are facing four elections in 2022:
    February 15: Consolidated Special Municipal Election. Voters will begin receiving their vote-by-mail ballot packets around January 17.
    April 19: Special Municipal Election for California Assembly District 17
    June 7: Direct Primary Election
    November 7: Consolidated General Election

    The 2022 midterm elections promise to be brutal, with the balance of power in Congress on the line—as well as the very nature of our democracy. It’s going to take all hands on deck. Be prepared to step up and do your part in the year ahead to volunteer, donate, march, write letters, or do whatever it takes to protect our country and our rights. See you on the front lines!

    Stay Safe in the New Year

    Now into year three of this pandemic—something unimaginable to us at the beginning of 2020—remember to keep following safety protocols so we can all get through this. Get vaxxed, and get boosted. Please keep making wise decisions to protect your own health and the health of others. Wear a close-fitting N95 or KF94 mask; loose-fitting cloth masks are useless against the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Keep washing your hands (it’s cold and flu season, too). And think at least twice before going to crowded events. Please stay safe, folks. Here’s to a safe and happy New Year!

    Joanie Juster is a long-time community volunteer, activist, and ally.

    Published on January 13, 2022