How a Starbucks store manager is working to fight AIDS around the globe

On World AIDS Day, as Starbucks partners with (RED) to raise awareness and funds to end the disease, a Starbucks store manager is preparing to spend a year in sub-Saharan Africa caring for those with HIV. 

Inside Ryan Wooten’s West Hollywood, Calif., apartment is one of his most poignant possessions: a big black box that once held a Prada messenger bag he bought to spoil himself, after he was diagnosed with HIV. Now, it holds dozens of empty prescription bottles – six years’ worth of Stribild and more recently, Biktarvy – reminders of the medication he’s used to keep himself alive since he was 23 years old.

“When the bottle’s empty, it’s powerless,” Wooten explains. “And it made me feel a sense of accomplishment. I’m alive for another month. I outlived another bottle of pills.”  

Wooten, a Starbucks store manager in Los Angeles, is the beneficiary of a public health success story. Considered an almost-certain death sentence in the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, can now be suppressed with a once-a-day pill regimen – to the point where Wooten’s viral load is undetectable and not even transmittable.

Still, there’s so much more work left to do. Approximately 38 million people around the world are living with HIV; an estimated 15 million don’t have access to life-saving antiretroviral medication. Last year, approximately 1.7 million people were newly diagnosed with HIV, and 770,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses.

“I appreciate only having to take one pill; I feel grateful for living in 2019 instead of the 1980s,” Wooten says. “That’s why I did the AIDS Walk (in Los Angeles) this year. I’ve walked every year since 2013. I walk for the people that can’t walk. I walk for the people who aren’t here anymore.”

On World AIDS Day, Starbucks is proud to celebrate the progress that’s been made and continue to work towards ending AIDS. For the 12th consecutive year, Starbucks is partnering with (RED) to raise awareness about the global AIDS epidemic and directly fund efforts to end the disease. For every latte sold Dec. 1 in its U.S. and Canada stores, Starbucks will give 25 cents to the Global Fund to help fight AIDS.

Since 2008, Starbucks has generated more than $15.5 million in donations to help fight AIDS with (RED). The money supports HIV/AIDS programs, which provide HIV testing, counseling, treatment, prevention and education services.

The Global Fund – a collaboration between governments, businesses and health organizations – works to accelerate the end of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria as epidemics. It raises and invests nearly $4 billion annually to support programs run by local experts in countries and communities most in need.

A global problem

On last year’s World AIDS Day, Starbucks donations were directed to the Rwandan Ministry of Health to help some of the communities from which Starbucks sources coffee. One of the grantees was the Imbuto Foundation, which works with young mothers in remote areas, many of whom are living with HIV and face a stigma as a result of their status.

The organization brings the women together in peer-led support groups that offer empowerment through community, job training and access to sexual reproductive health education – particularly important in Rwanda, where only half of young women have comprehensive knowledge on how to prevent HIV.

Of the millions living with HIV around the world, 68 percent are living in sub-Saharan African countries like Rwanda, according to statistics compiled by UNAIDS, a United Nations agency working to end AIDS by 2030. Globally, young women (aged 15-24) have a 60 percent higher infection rate than young men of the same age, and in sub-Saharan Africa, young women are twice as likely to acquire HIV as young men.

“We think about our bigger mission, to empower and nurture the human spirit, and that has to happen wherever we are, wherever we can touch,” says Kelly Goodejohn, Starbucks director of ethical sourcing and traceability, who visited the Imbuto Foundation in May to see the impact of the company’s donations. “Rwanda is core to our coffee history and legacy. We’re connected to Rwanda. This partnership with (RED) is part of living our mission and values.”

Living with HIV

Wooten, the Starbucks store manager, says support is critical after an HIV diagnosis, wherever you live in the world.

Now 30, Wooten remembers all the details of the night he was diagnosed. It was Nov. 19, 2013, 8:59 p.m., at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. He remembers the roller coaster of emotions after the doctor told him the news – crying, seeing red, frantically asking the doctor to retest him. And he remembers the doctor’s compassion.

After he finally calmed down, Wooten told the doctor, “You’re not going to give me a death sentence and not buy me some ice cream. Buy me ice cream now.”

They drove to McDonald’s together in the doctor’s car.

“It’s so juvenile, but it was in that little moment, eating a vanilla ice cream cone, that I realized I’m still alive,” Wooten says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next but I’m here and I’m alive, and tomorrow will happen, and the next day will happen.”

After his diagnosis, Wooten learned more about HIV – specifically that he could overcome it.

“I appreciate only having to take one pill; I feel grateful for living in 2019 instead of the 1980s,”

 “We’re at the point where somebody who is diagnosed with HIV relatively early has the same life expectancy as someone who doesn’t have it,” says Julie Dombrowski, associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington, and the deputy director of the Public Health Seattle/King County HIV/STD program.

The greatest challenge now, Dombrowski says, is making sure that everyone who needs medication has access to it. Most of the people who aren’t getting it in the U.S. have complicating factors, such as homelessness, mental illness or substance use disorders. The other battlefront is stigma, Dombrowski says, which prevents some people from getting diagnosed or even seeking treatment.

The urgent goal for the international health community is a “90-90-90” target: that 90 percent of all people living with HIV will know their status; 90 percent of those people will be receiving antiretroviral medication; and 90 percent of those people will be virally suppressed.

“The world has made tremendous progress in battling HIV – in expanding access to services, reducing new infections and advancing science and technology so that antiretrovirals serve as both treatment and prevention in one pill,” says Luisa Engel, Chief Impact Officer at (RED). “But we won’t reach the finish line without increased funding and focus at a global scale. It’s precisely why it’s so incredible to have iconic partners like Starbucks who are raising cash and awareness for the issue impacting their communities – from baristas in California to coffee growers in Rwanda.”

Giving back

Wooten credits the Los Angeles LGBT Center, one of the premier support centers for LGBT people in the world, for guiding him through the dark early days of his diagnosis – “I have a million stories of crying,” he says. They connected him to a counselor, a nutritionist and a life coach, and provided free medication. Those people and others there – the doctor who diagnosed him is now one of his closest friends – helped him establish a routine, helped guide him towards a normal life.

Now, Wooten is giving back. He volunteers weekly as a facilitator at the LGBT Center, working with the area’s large population of homeless youth, some of whom are just coming out as gay or transitioning, or who have HIV but haven’t told anyone yet.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Wooten himself was homeless for a while when he was 18 years old, right before he was hired as a Starbucks barista. He lashed out and lived recklessly, he says, while trying to find his identity; he can relate to the kids at the center.

Starting next year, he’ll take an even bigger step. Starbucks offers partners who have been with the company for 10 years the option of taking a sabbatical. Wooten is going to spend his on a one-year volunteer assignment with the Peace Corps in Namibia, another sub-Saharan African country, where approximately 200,000 people live with HIV. There, beginning in April, he’ll support the AIDS fight by working with local public health officials and caring for HIV-positive Namibians.

Wooten believes he was selected specifically because of his disease, because of how it changed him after his diagnosis. It shaped new perspectives, gave him a crash course on one of the biggest public health crises in the world and forced him to live and lead with empathy. Having HIV has caused him to see the world differently, Wooten says, and he’s chosen to turn it into a positive experience.

Wooten’s Starbucks store is on Sunset Boulevard, near the Hollywood Walk of Fame, across the street from movie and television production studios. But tent encampments are also on both sides of the street next to his store. His customers include movie stars, cast members of big television shows, local news anchors and people experiencing homelessness.

Starbucks store manager Ryan Wooten talks to partner Alina Jackson at their store in Los Angeles.

How does he connect with that broad spectrum of humanity? How will he live a meaningful life, in ways big and small?

“It’s crazy to think that the thing I thought would kill me or make me a weak person is the thing that’s making me strong,” Wooten says. “I’m helping change the world, I’m going to make a difference, and the reason I’m doing it is because of my status.”

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Photo essay: Caps off to the class of 2024