Overcoming hardship is a challenge that many of us have faced, but fewer, perhaps, have triumphed to the degree that Chelsea Gulden has. At age 21, just before her senior year in college, Gulden received the shocking news: she was pregnant and HIV-positive. Despite how much her life had changed, Gulden was and remains determined to advocate for people like her. “I began using my story to elicit change,” she says. Beginning with Metrolina AIDS Project (MAP), Gulden is now 35 and vice president of operations at Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN). A proud bisexual and mother of three, Gulden has truly taken ownership of her diagnosis and loves the direction it has influenced her to take in her career.
Of all of RAIN’s programs and projects, which is most important to you personally?
The Empowering Positive Youth (EPY) Program will always be close to my heart. The concept was to give to other youth what I felt like I needed. I was 21 when I was diagnosed and I felt like no one could understand, I felt like my whole life was ruined … although the program is really important to me, I also know for its success, I’ve had to step back and watch the younger staff members give the gift of hope, life and restoration. Both of RAIN’s current EPY Peer Navigators are graduates of that same program. I am very proud of that and about all the youth we’ve helped over the years.
Why did you choose to go into this field of work?
I always say, I chose social work, but HIV chose me. When I reflect on my life and my career path, I am often thankful for my HIV diagnosis directing to this field … HIV still carries such a stigma that it negatively impacts people’s ability to deal with their diagnosis, maintain supportive family members, have healthy and happy sex lives and prevents us from educating the youth with factual information as opposed to scare tactics. Although we have the tools to end AIDS with PrEP and treatment as prevention, we still have a lot of work to do.
Either personally or professionally, what was the hardest decision you ever had to make?
The hardest decision I ever made was last March. My best friend was in the hospital, a month after her 30th birthday, dying from AIDS … she had slipped into a coma. Her family wanted to leave her on the machines indefinitely in hopes of a full recovery, but she and I had talked a lot about her end of life wishes. The last thing I wanted to do was advocate to allow her to die, but I knew that’s what she wanted. I made a decision to honor what I knew she wanted, even though every fiber of my being wanted to hold on to the hopes of a miracle. While I held her hand, and with family surrounding her, I kissed her forehead and we said goodbye. She had lived with HIV for 17 years, and we had been friends for 11 years. She was one of the first people I met when I was diagnosed and was part of the reason I became so passionate about the work. For 11 years I tried to make her take her medication, but she embodied all of the stigmas and barriers we fight daily.
What hobbies or pastimes do you enjoy?
I have three kids, so I don’t know what I like to do anymore. Most of my free time revolves around their activities. I do love to travel, and I particularly like tropical destinations. In the summer, I love to swim.
Who are some important people in your support system, and how do they add to your life?
Although they can’t really support me at their age, my kids are the most important people in my life. I would set my entire life on hold for them. My 93-year-old grandmother is also very important to me. She has always been there for me, and when I was in the midst of [my] teenage and adolescent years, she never judged me or got upset with me. She has always just been there for me. I would have to say my sister, Cassie, and my best friend, Susan. When I’m in a bind, I can always call them for support and clarity. Last but not least, my mentor, Debbie Warren. She can calm me down without even knowing I was upset. Debbie has an ability to tell me certain things, which may be hard for me to hear, in a manner that forces me to have an “ah huh” moment. I know she’ll always be here to support me and she genuinely cares about my success.
If you were to meditate, what would you envision as your “happy place”?
My happy place would be a tropical island, on one of those massage beds. There would be clear water, clear skies, fancy drinks with umbrellas, and lots of personal wait staff.