35 Years of Dignity: Shepherd Wellness Community

Shepherd Wellness Community has been serving Pittsburgh for 35 years.

Shepherd Wellness Community

In the summer of 1987, four gay men living with AIDS met with Father Lynn Edwards, an Episcopal priest; Bill Brandon, a physician; and Cynthia Klemanski, a social worker. The four gay men wanted to discuss the ramifications of the AIDS pandemic on Pittsburgh, but they were also concerned about the emotional wellbeing of people affected by HIV.

It cannot be overstated the devastation caused by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, HIV soared across the country and decimated urban queer communities. Diagnoses forced people out of the closet to return home to family who disrespected or disowned them, and robbed our community of a generation of LGBTQ+ folk. The pandemic hit Pittsburgh hard. In fact, Pennsylvania still remains one of the top 10 states in the country for active AIDS cases.

The terror and stigma of HIV/AIDS can be isolating. Those four gay men wanted a space to build a family for other gay men who were facing the disease’s ultimatum.

That October of 1987, Father Edwards, Brandon, and Klemanski founded the Shepherd Wellness Community (SWC). They held the first Wellness Dinner, a small affair in the Church of the Good Shepherd in Hazelwood. Nowadays, over 250 volunteers oversee these Wellness Dinners every Friday, preparing food to be enjoyed in-house as well as meals to take home or to send to members’ households – all free of charge. These Wellness Dinners are often the first place newly-diagnosed HIV+ people can meet up and connect with the community.  

Shepherd Wellness Community is devoted to personally supporting HIV/AIDS-positive community members in their time of need until HIV is eliminated. HIV+ members from all over southwestern Pennsylvania have flocked to SWC for support. As the AIDS pandemic tore through America, that need only grew.

In 1990, due to increasing attendance, SCW moved their Wellness Dinners to the First United Methodist Church in Shadyside. SWC’s Drop-In Center – a home space for members to meet-up, do their laundry, and generally relax – moved from a small house in Hazelwood to the parish house of the Church of the Good Shepherd to the Bloomfield Community United Methodist Church. In 2002, the church was donated SCW for $1 and was converted into the SWC Community Center. Thanks to grants and donations, renovations made the former church completely disability-accessible, equipped with a kitchen approved by the Allegheny County Health Department, a dining room, an activity room, modern air conditioning, wiring, plumping, security, and fire detection systems.

In 2000, SWC ramped up their non-clinical care programs to uplift the wellbeing of the HIV+ people they serve. In addition to their Friday Wellness Dinners, they host many social events at their community center as well as outings to various spots around Pittsburgh, from museumsto Kennywood to cultural events and performances.

Their many support groups and education sessions help members navigate the trials and tribulations of living with HIV by providing counseling, information and group therapy in a safe environment to build a constructive mindset among peers. SWC also sets up confidential peer counselling telephone calls to create a social network among members.  Nonsectarian spiritual life programs offer interfaith worship services and community, welcoming members from a variety of religious backgrounds. Every December, SWC holds a candlelight service to honor those have passed away.

SWC’s many fitness and alternative therapy programs aim to bolster physical health. Exercise can relieve fatigue as well as the emotional and bodily stress that often accompanies HIV. At the Community Center, members can attend strength training and exercise classes to learn Tai chi, ballroom dancing, meditation, Zumba, yoga, foot spa, and Pa Tuan Chin.

If a member faces difficulty travelling to these programs, SWC can provide transportation assistance in the form of bus tickets or mileage reimbursement.

The COVID-19 pandemic has and continues to hit hard on all of us, but it was especially difficult for HIV+ people. The HIV+ community was quite understandably cautious, so SWC took every safeguard to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Programs such as the Friday Wellness Dinners went virtual, though SWC still provided frozen meals for pick-up, concerned for their members’ nutrition. When in-person Friday Wellness Dinners resumed at the beginning of April 2022, SWC went on to ensure their members health – requiring attendees to be fully vaccinated, to wear masks, and abide by social distancing guidelines. SWC looked after a community that was already vulnerable to isolation.

Any HIV+ person who wishes to become a member of Shepherd Wellness Community has to complete a membership application, maintain Ryan White certification, and follow the SWC Member Rights and Responsibilities as well as the SWC Code of Member Conduct. As SWC grew, its membership expanded throughout the queer spectrum of gender and sexuality and included people from many age ranges and racial and ethnic backgrounds. Anyone can contract HIV. SWC stands against discrimination and refuses to tolerate bigotry.

SWC is a 503(c)(3) nonprofit committed to being debt-free while offering their services to members to no cost. The beloved OUTrageous Bingo operates as SWC’s primary fundraiser. If you would wish to contribute to SWC’s mission, you can donate directly, purchase items on its Amazon wishlist, donate a vehicle, or sign a United Way pledge.

We are incredibly thankful for the advancements in medical treatment for HIV/AIDS. HIV+ people now have drugs such as PreP to minimize their viral load to untransmissible levels and render them asymptomatic. Yet the societal perception around the disease still lags behind. An HIV diagnosis can still cause estrangement from family and friends due to stigma and misinformation. For over thirty years, Shepherd Wellness Community has maintained that HIV+ people deserve love and respect just as much as anyone else. HIV is no longer a death sentence and loneliness should never accompany it.

Alasdair (he/him) is the digital editor of QBurgh. He is a recent graduate of Chatham University with a BFA and a MA in Creative Writing. He grew up around Pittsburgh and now wishes to become involved with the local LGBTQ+ community. Through his writing, he hopes to represent and advocate for queer people like himself.