Friday, March 16, 2012

Not Your Typical HIV/AIDS Support Group/Cruise Retreat

By Tom Donohue

Snorkeling, a Mad Hatter Party, and dinner among what becomes 200 and more of your newest friends is not what anyone would think as your typical HIV/AIDS support group. Neither is the location; hundreds of miles off the coast of the United States among on the beautiful blue ocean or on the exotic islands of Aruba, Curaco and Princess Cays.

In November, I had the pleasure of joining some I knew and many I didn’t to take part in the 2011 Cruise Retreat. This event welcomed hundreds of HIV positive men and woman, infected and affected to the coast of Florida where we began a journey that we will never forget.

Our first glimpse of each other was when we gathered at a local resort on Friday. Our leader Paul Stalbaum and hosts welcomed each other and got the conversation and introductions started. It was fun because it was also the first time that those who choose to save some money and have roommates met their roommate. It was a great icebreaker and with that our excitement grew to board our new home on the high seas.

Throughout the week we spent time getting to know each other at social and educational events all of which are optional to attend. I found that the more events I attended the more I began to feel this group become more of a family rather than friends I had just met. Our mutual connection, “the recipe” provided private times where just our group attended. It was a great way to connect with other HIV-positive people who just understood the challenges of being positive – it was refreshing especially for me, someone from a rural town to network with other positive guys.

Although there were moments when we bonded emotionally, I can’t stop

thinking about all the fun we had. The times when we got to let loose forget about us being HIV-positive and have a ton of fun. Paul sets up these private excursions for our group. An excursion is basically a tour on the island that we visit – that is generally action packed and lots of fun. This year one excursion was a catamaran to snorkel – we rode out into the blue seas where we were able to swim among all types of colorful fish and see the wreckage of this ship, it was awesome. Did I forget to mention drinks were on the house while on the catamaran? By the time we returned to land, we had forgotten about what we had had in common and the group were dancing, singing and just having a ‘boatload’ of a time.

The trip is different for everyone such as the experience it gave William Querica of Avon Parks Lake, Florida. He says “It gave me strength and now I am Vice-Chair of West-Central Florida's Ryan White Care Council helping thousands cope and live healthier lives. I see the cruise as being one huge support group with experiences and education needed to live a wonderful life.” We all have something in common, yet we all take something different away from this trip. Paul’s mission was to create a safe environment that allows people from all over the country to come together for a life affirming week of camaraderie, laugh out loud events and the chance to walk away with many new friends. He says “I am proud to say that over the years aside from literally hundreds of lasting friendships we have had dozens of people meet their next partner on our cruise.”

This year the cruise is heading out of Fort Lauderdale and over Halloween sailing to Princess Cays Bahamas, Grand Turk, St. Thomas, and St Maarten on Princess Cruise Lines. This will be my third trip with this bunch, in addition to being a host I’m also friends with many of those who join us, I can honestly say that these trips continue to be the highlight of my year and provide life lasting memories and friends you’ll connect with throughout the year.

For more information about the cruise retreat, visit
TOM DONOHUE is the founding director of Who’s Positive, a national organization that humanizes HIV through firsthand accounts of people living with the virus. He also sits on the board of trustees of the National Association of People With AIDS. Reach Tom at

Bon Voyage!

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