GMHC’s signature Buddy Program, which pairs a client living with HIV with a volunteer who can offer emotional support, requires a one-year commitment, but Rudy Miles and John Young have been buddies for six years and counting.
“We actually like each other,” jokes Miles, the volunteer of the pair. A makeup artist extraordinaire, he’s created looks for a lengthy list of top fashion designers, actors, celebs and notables. (Zang Toi, Oscar de la Renta, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, Matthew McConaughey and his wife Camila Alves, screenwriter/producer Mara Brock Akil, Kendall Jenner, Paris and Nicole Hilton—to name a few.)
He proved a good match for Young, an educator and HIV/AIDS advocate. “John had very particular guidelines about who he wanted to be matched with—requests, bordering on demands,” Miles says with affection. “There was not a lot of wiggle room.”
“I didn’t say cute, I didn’t say fly,” Young demurred. “First, it had to be another Black man, with shared cultural references and understandings, so I wouldn’t have to explain this and that.” The pair are also close in age: At 60, Young is just five years older than Miles, and he’s been living with HIV and AIDS for almost 35 years.
Young says that when he asked GMHC for a buddy in 2016, he was very specific about his requirements, since the volunteers for the agency’s original Buddy Program in the early 1980s were generally white, middle and upper-middle class gay men.
“John is very, very interesting and his sense of humor is great. You won’t get a boring moment out of him,” Miles says. “He’s an historian for the Black gay community, and as an educator and advocate he has a wide reach and touch.”
“I know a lot of people, but I’m not personally connected with a lot,” Young objects.
“You were lonely. You wanted emotional support,” Miles prompts.
“Yes,” Young says. “But I’m very particular. I had a partner whom I loved deeply, but he made his transition, and I had a difficult time identifying another,” he explains.
When GMHC restarted its signature Buddy Program in 2014, Young says, a landmark ACRIA study on aging with HIV had just revealed that almost half of people living with HIV were over age 50 and many were single—a huge demographic shift thanks to antiretroviral medications.
“Many were isolated and did not have family. That was the case with me. I was over 50, not close to family and living alone in the city. I was an example of what the ACRIA researchers found,” he says. “The parameters for the epidemic in the fourth decade have changed. There’s still the need for connection, but it takes a different form.”
When asked how he’d describe his buddy, Young replies: “He’s kind, patient, extremely intelligent, and he’s gorgeous! He’s steadfast and unmovable. He has the combination of being flexible, but also of being very firm. He’s a wonderful Black man.”
Miles in turn calls his buddy: “An effervescent wealth of knowledge and personality. He’s very approachable, very honest. He’s going to tell it like it is, but respectfully, and he’s highly respected in the community.”
Buddies Then and Now
Young himself became one of the first African American buddy volunteers about 35 years ago at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C. It was 1987, in the early years of the AIDS pandemic, and Whitman-Walker matched Young, a D.C. public school teacher at the time, with a youth of just 19 who was already very ill and hospitalized. “He was so sick that I was only with him for a month, then he made his transition,” Young says.
Young tested positive for HIV not long after, and then in 1997 he was diagnosed with AIDS from an opportunistic infection. “I was given six-to-18 months to live. It was right at the inception of combination drug therapies,” he says.
He was able to retire from the D.C. school system and returned to his native New York. Soon after, a new medication renewed his lease on life. He earned a doctorate at Columbia University’s Teachers College, focusing on gifted African American males, and went on to serve as an academic writing advisor at Columbia for 14 years.
Young also immersed himself in HIV advocacy, taking bus trips back to D.C. to call for Ryan White funds and to Albany to call for housing for people living with HIV. “I became increasingly comfortable in being visible about my sexual orientation and my advocacy,” he says. “I had income, so I decided I had nothing to lose by being very public.” That’s when he started speaking at local high schools and to the media about living with HIV and AIDS.
A Unique Buddyship
Before COVID-19, Young and Miles would get together every week and find an inexpensive place to eat or take in a play at the Classical Theatre of Harlem. “We quickly established our own way of interacting,” Miles says. “I love the Buddy Program because it’s one-on-one, so you can decide together what to do.”
“My commitment to John is higher than to my friends, because the program requires us to see each other once a week,” he adds. “I have some friends I don’t see for months!”
COVID-19 disrupted their weekly get togethers, so the two started texting each other every morning to check in. Miles sent an emoji avatar of himself to Young, who liked it a lot. “Rudy explained how to create one, so I did it too, and we started sending emojis back and forth. It was really nice,” Young says. “Thank you, Rudy.”
“Now when we communicate, we’ll send little emojis to just say hello and have a good day,” he adds.
Miles says one reason their buddy relationship has worked out so well is because GMHC’s Buddy Program volunteers receive intensive training on good relationship skills and setting boundaries. “When you’re dealing with interpersonal relationships, it can be a slippery slope,” Miles says. “One thing I love about GMHC is they don’t just pick you as buddies and throw you in.”
“For instance, John wanted to come to my apartment and cook. I’d have no issue if I weren’t married, but my partner didn’t sign up for that. You need to set boundaries,” he says.
“Most of us are not doctors or mental health counselors, so there is special training on how to deal with suicidal ideation and issues for long-term survivors like dementia and mobility,” Miles adds. “Sometimes people can get overwhelmed, because the needs of the client are more than the volunteer is able or trained to give–but John is great at vocalizing what he likes and wants, so there is no confusion there.”
All of the Buddy Program volunteers met monthly at GMHC before COVID-19 for a Report and Support group, where they could talk about successes and challenges with their clients, Miles says. That has turned into a group Zoom call, but volunteers can always reach out for support to Shelley Levine, who runs the Buddy Program. “She is great,” he adds.
Asked what they get from the buddy relationship, Miles says, “It’s seeing from checking in with John that I’m providing the service I promised. As long as John is getting something out of it, I’m here.”
Young has a shorter response: “Friendship. That’s it.”