In 1995, Sunnie Rose was working in law and found it was leaving her uninspired. Originally drawn to the field to be able to help others, the fact that one party always lost out left her cold. The self-described cowgirl moved away from law and started volunteering at L.A. Shanti. Once that groundbreaking HIV/AIDS organization shuttered, Sunnie decided to take things into her own hands. She’s now the co-founder and executive director of The Life Group L.A., thelifegroupla.org, which strives to empower people through education and emotional support so they can make informed choices about their lives, health care and general well-being.
What drew you to the realm of HIV/AIDS?
I joined the Gay Rodeo Association in 1989 and became very close to many people who were getting sick and dying. So many people had not even come out about being gay, and they now had to come out about having full-blown AIDS. I spent a lot of time with them in hospice and in the hospital, and I vowed that I would never allow anybody I know to die alone and unloved.
How did you go about creating The Life Group L.A.?
I’d been producing a weekend seminar at L.A. Shanti for 10 years. Funding was dwindling, and in March 2005, the last eight of us were laid off. I started getting calls from case managers from other organizations who said, “There’s a huge gap in services now—what are you going to do about this?” I said, “I’m on unemployment. What do you mean what am I going to do about it?” [Laughs] I reached out to a couple of my presenters who were leaders in the field. I called a meeting and word got out that I was considering starting something. Six people turned into 60 people, and everybody vowed to help. I came home and mortgaged my house and started the organization. That was in June 2005, and by mid-July, we’d launched our website and put out a press release. In August, we produced our first independent weekend seminar and more than 100 people showed up.
What kind of services do you provide?
Our signature program is the POZ Life Weekend Seminar, which is for people who are infected or affected by HIV and AIDS. It’s the only program in L.A. that has no demographic boundaries. We serve people who are gay, straight, male, female, positive, negative. And we’re the only organization that offers support groups for the HIV-negative partners of people who are positive. For a lot of people, the stigma is still pretty prevalent, but because we’re for people who are infected and affected, nobody knows your business when you go in.
What takes place at the seminars?
We bring in presenters who talk about an array of different subjects: drug treatment options, understanding your lab reports, HIV and aging, insurance and public benefits, sex and intimacy, goal setting, disclosure. We talk about a holistic approach to HIV care. We do art therapy, music therapy, meditation for wellness and yoga. We also break out into smaller emotional support groups twice a day where participants are able to talk about things on a more intimate level.
What are your hopes for the future?
To attain financial stability. Our annual budget, which we don’t even raise every year, is less than a quarter of a million dollars to serve 400 to 500 people a year. The other thing would be to be able to take our program to other states where they don’t have emotional support and educational programs. We could teach local organizations the model so that once we leave, they can continue to produce this sort of program for their community.
What kind of feedback have you gotten?
What really hits home for me is when people who have been in isolation for a year and are really sick and looking pale and frail will come to the workshop and get so inspired that they come out of their isolation and have a renewal. They’re reinspired and out loving life and giving back. You hear something like that and no matter how tired you are, it’s like, “OK, we’re still needed.” I’m waiting one day to hear there’s a cure so I can go look for another job, which would be fabulous.