Karen Stanford and Sharon Roach said they’ve both always felt they were called to serve others. This call has led the Middletown, Del.-residents to Beautiful Gate Outreach Center, which assists both individuals infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS, through programs including counseling and testing. Karen and Sharon, who are coworkers at Exelon with Sharon working for Exelon Company Atlantic City Electric, have dedicated the past several years to volunteering for some of those most in need in their community.
The duo are both heavily involved with the Beautiful Gate Outreach Center’s annual Saving Our Sisters conference, an all-day event that brings together women and girls of all ages who are impacted by HIV/AIDS to learn about health, wellness, and self empowerment. Karen, who has volunteered with the Center for about the past five years, serves as the chair of their hostess committee, which plans the logistics of the event. Sharon, who has been a volunteer with the Center for at least the past 15 years, is a speaker for the youngest girls attending the conference. She also works with students impacted by HIV/AIDS on a weekly basis through a support group, and serves as a member of the Beautiful Gate Outreach AIDS Task Force.
Describe your volunteer role with Beautiful Gate Outreach Center.
Karen: I particularly assist with their annual Saving Our Sisters conference, as well as other events throughout the year, wherever they need assistance from a volunteer perspective, and providing donations and getting donations. We have an annual Saving Our Sisters conference every year where princesses or queens, or young ladies and women from eight years up and older, attend this conference to get valuable information — not just specifically about HIV and AIDS, but about healthcare, mental health, how to empower themselves. It’s an all-day conference that the individuals come to. It’s a lot of fun. They get information from various speakers who come in to speak to the young ladies and the women about various topics. They do healthcare. They have representatives there from a local hospital who do blood pressure screening and things of that nature as well. It’s fully encompassing around the young ladies and women to help them be empowered and to improve their wellbeing, and it’s very educational. They do breakout sessions that are age-appropriate for the attendees that speak to different themes. Each year there’s a different theme, and then the speakers in the breakout sessions will educate the young ladies and women on various topics that pertain to them.
I chair the Hostess Committee for the Saving Our Sisters conference, and have been doing that for the past six years. All the hostesses are responsible for ensuring the logistics of the conference go right. We call ourselves the directors of first impressions. We’re greeting the attendees when they get there, we’re helping to direct them to their various breakout sessions, helping them during break, helping them with the breakfast and lunch and different things like that, and also providing assistance to the vendors. The hostesses are the largest part of volunteers who participate in the Saving Our Sisters conference, and then they help the speakers such as Sharon. We break them out in each of the breakout groups to assist with the speakers if they need anything from a technology perspective, logistics, or just assisting with the participants and the attendees with their breakout sessions. That’s been my main role with the conference — chairing that committee, divvying up assignments, making sure everyone is in place and is educated and understands their role and how we have an impact, to ensure there’s a successful conference.
Sharon: I actually am the speaker or presenter for the 8-to-10-year-old princesses. I put together an agenda and work with them on age-appropriate items. As well, I actually work with students who are part of families that are affected by or infected with AIDS for several hours once a week. We give them different items of interest, such as hygiene. We give them a breakfast. We have them understand social etiquette and learn various educational items throughout. I’m a member of the Beautiful Gate Outreach AIDS Task Force, and that task force meets monthly. During that time, we are educated on items that are of interest throughout the world as it relates to AIDS and its effect and its impact on others. We take that information and share it with the clients that come in, the families that come in. It keeps us up with what’s going on in the world, but also we connect it to our local community as it relates to Beautiful Gate and make sure they understand even from a pharmaceutical standpoint, everything from the testing to different medications, trials that are going on, how they can be better impacted by the new drugs that are on the horizon, or what effects the current drugs have on the patients.
Why is this issue important to you?
Sharon: First of all, volunteering is important to me because that is what my parents instilled in me and my siblings, to give back to others. Also, the fact of the matter is I’m a Christian, and I do believe serving others is what I’m called to do. It’s important for me, as it relates to the AIDS issues, that we do something to help those who are being forgotten. That’s just my opinion, that to me it was important to help not only the ones who are infected — which they do need help — but also the ones who are affected and impacted by those who are sick. We can help meet their needs where we can. I feel as though I’m very blessed in many ways with my talent, with my monetary giving, and so I was drawn to it because I knew I could help as it related to supplies, bus passes, time, educating, and just trying to make a difference in the lives of those affected and impacted.
Do you have a favorite part of the Saving Our Sisters Conference?
Karen: The most exciting part for me is seeing the difference that we’re making. They’re so energetic and they’re so excited while they’re there during the day, and some of it is difficult. We have counselors who are there because some of the women and girls may have an issue, and we have a crisis room set up where they can go talk to them. But overall, the excitement and the joy that the attendees, the princesses and the queens, get from the conference. They’re being educated. They have information that they can take and use in their life and possibly share with other women and girls that will impact them for years to come, for the rest of their lives. That’s the beauty of it, when you see their faces and you see how they’re listening and they’re taking in the information. That, to me, helps to solidify that I am making a difference and my contribution is helping them in ways I don’t even know.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
Karen: There’s so much we don’t know that we have maybe taken for granted. I’ve learned that you need to continually educate yourself and help to educate others. Not just about HIV and AIDS, because the conference isn’t just all about HIV and AIDS. It’s about wellness. It’s about health. They educate them on abusive relationships and what you can do about that, and self esteem. So for me, what I learned is how important it is to continue to educate the young ladies and the women. It’s not just, ‘Oh, at 50 you should know this already,’ because some of us don’t. I’m 54 and I’m still learning everyday. How critical it is and how important it is to respect individuals, and show them that respect and show them how important they are, how beautiful they are, how empowered they are, and how much they can continue to do in their lives and continue to grow. I think that’s what I’ve learned particularly from this organization.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
Karen: I think that’s how our communities thrive. Thrive and survive. Because we’re all a part of the community.
Sharon: Who’s going to do it if we don’t? If not us, then who?
Karen: I think it can only help to improve the communities and it shows that people care. It’s not just about, ‘Oh, because you live in Middletown and I live in Wilmington, you think you’re better than me because you live out here.’ It’s not about that. It’s about helping them to do better and to see that there’s other opportunities, or to even know that people care.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
Sharon: Get involved. Make a difference.
Karen: And it doesn’t have to be with this organization. We all have something to offer somewhere. Get involved with whatever your passion is or whatever it is for you, but give back to others. Learn and grow.
Sharon: At the end of the day, you only know what you know until you know something different. In order to know something different, you have to get involved. That’s how I see it. I myself didn’t realize how being involved with Beautiful Gate, that I was educated and empowered because now I have the knowledge. I’ve always tried to treat everyone the same, with respect, because I expect respect back. Irregardless of your titles, you age, your race, the bottom line is we’re all human beings. We all need to be respected no matter what our salaries are, where we live. It does not matter. We are all human beings.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Karen and Sharon? Find local volunteer opportunities.