I was diagnosed in 1987. I lived for 13 years as a couch potato in Staten Island. In 2000, I got tired of not doing anything meaningful. It was like an ongoing sabbatical to nowhere. My old thinking didn't give me any points of reference. I wanted to make my mark on the world. Become a productive member of society.
Someone told me about ASC's Peer program and outreach. I came here and did the PREP training. My commute was two-and-a-half hours each way from Staten Island by bus, boat, and train (if you miss that ferry, you lose half an hour). I had perfect attendance, three times a week over eight weeks.
The Peer Program got me highly motivated. I'm a people person, engage them easily. I had limited experience with some agencies, but found the atmosphere at ASC warm, friendly, nurturing. I enjoyed the people who worked here. They saw stuff in me I didn't see.
I started as a Peer Educator helping people who'd been in recovery but were in danger of using. I know about having no direction--the old thinking comes back. To direct people, you can't just say, "You have to do this and that." You have to encourage them, give them an opportunity. You have to accept people for who they are, where they are.
I was a Peer for 4 years, and then I got a job at ASC as an HIV Counselor, doing harm reduction, outreach and testing. It's great to be able to get up and say "I'm looking forward to the opportunities and challenges of my job." The best thing is that it doesn't even feel like a job.
I work out of ASC's East Harlem facility. The focus is on testing. The people we see are a complete mix. You have na´ve, sexually active adolescents who don't believe it's their issue. You see senior citizens who feel the same way, for different reasons. I want to help people and make them realize, "Maybe this is good for me." Testing is a win-win. In either case, if you're positive or negative, ASC is here to help.
It's been so gratifying that our work is catching on. People feel a connection with the office, like we're part of the community. People come here to talk about their issues. ASC's approach is open-door. I stand in front of my office to reach people. I say "Good morning" or "Hello" or "How are you doing". It's about visibility. My challenge is to make HIV a community issue, to give people the information, and to empower them to pass it on.
Photo: David Nager/ASCNYC