Pictured: Siloam co-founder Sr. Bernadette Kinniry (left) and Sarina DiBianca.
Sarina DiBianca is Executive Director of Siloam Wellness Center, a social services organization located on the campus of Drexel University in Philadelphia that works with people living with HIV and AIDS. Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, co-founder and CEO of MissionBox, talks with Sarina about the work she is doing to raise awareness and break the stigma associated with the disease.
How did you get started pursuing your mission?
It started when I went to Ecuador and participated in shamanic ceremonies. Each time the shaman said, “The spirit brought your spirit here and wants you to go back and work with people.” It was a broad statement, and I didn’t know what to do with it. What does that mean? Work with people. How? I was a corporate controller for a publicly held company.
When I came back, I said to my husband that I needed to make a change. I didn’t know what kind of change. I worked in Camden, New Jersey, at the time. So, I went to work for several years at a nonprofit in Camden that fed the homeless. I knew it was a step in the right direction.
At that time, the Salvation Army was building the Kroc Center, and I went there. Once again, I knew these were bold steps in the right direction, but it wasn’t yet quite where I was intended to be. Then I saw this position in Philadelphia for an executive director at an organization for people living with HIV and AIDS. I walked in and realized that this was where I was intended to be.
What were your first impressions?
One thing that resonated early on was that everyone would talk about the isolation and stigma of living with HIV/AIDS. Even 30 years into this disease, people would be saying “it’s Thanksgiving and everyone is getting a plate. I get a paper plate and a plastic fork because they are afraid, they’re going to get this disease by eating off the same plate.”
So, I looked around and knew I wanted to make changes. The first step was the move from our old facility to a new space at Drexel. This new building houses dental, behavioral health, clinical and legal services, as well as a gym. Our friends with HIV/AIDS can be at our new facility without “outing” themselves, as many people use the service, not only those with HIV/AIDS.
What is unique about the Siloam Wellness Center and how do you go about overcoming stigmas?
We are the only mind, body, and spiritual wellness center in the United States for people living with HIV and AIDS.
Part of breaking the stigma is changing mindsets. We had a yoga class in our previous location, for example, that was only for people with HIV. I said, “Why? This is part of the stigma. When we come to our new facility, I’m going to open up yoga to the entire community.”
So, if you and I are both in that class—one of us is negative, one of us is positive —that never gets discussed. We become friends. We go out for a cup of coffee. We broke the stigma; we broke the isolation.
How varied are the backgrounds of the people you serve?
I always say the HIV/AIDS diagnosis is what gets people through the door. But then, we must unpack the trauma—whether that be sexual trauma, emotional trauma, physical trauma—from childhood. We are here to address comorbidity factors such as substance abuse, sex trafficking, etc. Whatever the journey of the individual is, we honor it and we are here to help.
If the person feels like “I cannot follow my medical protocol because I don’t feel like I deserve to be well; because I’ve done negative things in my past,” we try to honor their journey. What I say is Siloam is love, but it’s not L-O-V-E; it’s L-U-V, which is Listening, Understanding and Validating. And, yes, you may have had those circumstances in your past, but look where you are today.
I can tell you that these people are my heroes. Their stories are tragic. Their courage is inspirational. I honor who they are, where they’ve been and who they are today. And we have found that once they learn to honor themselves, they will want to stay well and will follow their medical protocols.
What partnerships have you developed for the Wellness Center?
We form many alliances. For instance, we recently partnered with UnitedHealthcare. Their team sees the link between Eastern and Western medicine and the benefit in mind, body and spiritual wellness. They have partnered with us not only with HIV, but the comorbidities, such as Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, substance abuse, cancer, anxiety, depression, smoking cessation. There is a whole plethora of diagnoses that Siloam helps with. Through our partnerships, we can now serve more people.
What is the next step for Siloam and for you?
The next step is educating children. The largest age group contracting HIV is 13- to 22-year-olds. That is eighth graders, high schoolers and college students who don’t know anything about HIV or AIDS and think that it ended in the 1990s. They don’t think they have anything to worry about.
I know this is an odd statement: I wish Siloam would go out of existence because no one is contracting this disease anymore. But until that happens, we can’t be silent. Our Center needs to reach out to these young people. In October, we hosted an event called Full Court Press for Awareness. We had former NBA player Jumaine Jones as our motivational speaker. We had Joe Richmond, who was a former Harlem Globetrotter. We’d partnered with AmeriHealth and Keystone Health, and they were our sponsors. We had 200 kids, coaches and parents in attendance, and it was powerful.
Today I was with former NFL player Kevin Ross, current cornerback coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In New Jersey, he is going to be running a two-day football camp, and I’m going to talk to the kids at his camp about HIV. They need to know how to stay safe.
What else should people know about the Wellness Center?
Our co-founders started Siloam in 1995, when people were dying of AIDS. Today, we teach people how to live with this chronic disease.
I hold in great esteem our co-founders, Fr. Don Reilly and Sr. Bernadette Kinniry, who were complete renegades 26 years ago when it came to serving those with HIV/AIDS with both love and basic needs such as housing in their last days of life.
Today, I’m taking the organization in new, different directions of educating 13- to 22-year-olds while still respecting Siloam's legacy and getting people the medicine and other basics that they need.
Here at the Siloam Wellness Center, we believe every person deserves the choice to live with dignity, not dependence. We will continue to grow our services and our support to fulfill that promise.
Donations and volunteers are always welcome.