At the beginning of the AIDS crisis, The Living Room at the AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO) offices was a way for gay men living with HIV to support and learn from each other. Since then, it has grown into a five-days-a-week program that requires a full-time coordinator and dozens of volunteers.
The Living Room now boasts a full monthly calendar: from computer and language classes to doggie socials to support groups for just about everyone under the sun — from children to long-term survivors — to special events, like the upcoming Thanksgiving dinner on Oct 6.
The breadth of the programming is impressive, but the amazing part is that every service is free, right down to the laundry detergent and the postage stamps. To become eligible to access these services, people need only attend an intake appointment with an ACO support worker. Et voilà.
As the coordinator of The Living Room, Cory Wong has a lot on his plate just making sure the programming continues to be relevant to their ever-changing clientele.
“We provide a lot of practical services,” Wong says. “It’s hard to develop a program that satisfies everyone’s needs, so we do something here and something there in the hope that at least some of your needs will be met, things that are educational but also creative and recreational.”
On top of managing this diverse programming, Wong has the job of maintaining a social space that offers everyone dignity, safety and respect.
“We want to create a safe place for people to come here and socialize with other people. We need a place like this so people can come and be open about their status and feel safe to talk about the issues that they need to talk about and relate to people about how they deal with their illness.”
Wong’s position, which was made into a full-time gig about six months ago, just before he was hired from within ACO, is all about accessing resources and increasing services to meet as many needs as possible. Since he started the job, The Living Room has expanded to include free weekly chiropractic care and has created an eight-computer learning centre for language and computer classes and online learning.
“Some people, especially newcomers, would like to learn English or French and basic computer skills,” Wong says. “That’s why we think there’s a need for the learning centre. It’s pretty slow now, but gradually people are learning about the programs. Hopefully it will become [busier].”
Wong says one of the big holes in programming is the lack of a hairdresser willing to provide free haircuts.
“We’re looking for one. It’s so sad — I thought we had one, and then this person said that she wouldn’t be able to do it because she has a friend who is a doctor who told her that it’s risky to do haircuts on people living with HIV. Ridiculous — a doctor! It’s so shocking. I [asked] our volunteer coordinator, ‘Why don’t you invite her and her doctor friend to come here for HIV 101?’ Everyone who volunteers has to go through [the] HIV 101 [course] because we don’t want to put volunteers or participants in a bad situation. And they can build the connections between the things they learn here and their own lives.”