Speaking  frankly

Speaking frankly

AIDS Service Center’s peer-to-peer program takes message of prevention to the streets

By Sara Cardine 01/17/2013

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Sacha Malin knows HIV can strike anyone at any time. She was attending graduate school in 1997 when her father fell suddenly ill and had to be hospitalized.

“He was really sick and we didn’t know why,” Malin recalls. “He went to the hospital and was just collapsing.”
Doctors determined he was suffering from a type of immune-compromised pneumonia. Shortly thereafter, he fell into a coma and had to be hooked up to a respirator.

When tests revealed he had AIDS, the family was awestruck. The only explanation that seemed feasible was that he’d been in a car accident when Malin was about 5 years old and had received multiple blood transfusions. At that time, the HIV virus was thought to affect only sexually active gay men.

Malin’s family never verified the true genesis of the disease, however, because her father died without regaining consciousness. Today, the 39-year-old Altadena mom uses her story as an opportunity to dispel myths about HIV/AIDS.
“It’s not just a disease that affects homosexuals and needle users. AIDS can touch you if you go to a hospital, if you have sex, if you’re born — that’s enough,” she says.

Soon Malin will have the chance to use her personal story to start important dialogues about HIV and its prevention with people in her community. She is one of five local residents who will soon undergo training to become a peer educator through Pasadena’s AIDS Service Center’s new Peer-to-Peer program, which aims to combat the spread of HIV through the power of conversation.

By February, the Service Center hopes to train as many as 30 peer educators to hit the streets with the intention of starting frank and open dialogues around sex, safety and HIV. The hope is this organic and informal way of broaching the subject will bring important prevention information to targeted populations that otherwise would not seek it out. And, in turn, volunteers will collect information about these demographics that could help improve services, according to Executive Director Anthony Guthmiller.

“We’re going to teach them how to start a dialogue around HIV,” he says. “Normalizing that dialogue is critical, and that’s what we have to start.”

Currently, an estimated 60,000 people in Los Angeles County are living with the virus. Of that, between 20 percent and 30 percent do not know they have it and are likely infecting others through unprotected sexual acts and shared needle use.

Peer-to-peer education is important, Guthmiller says, because the people most frequently infected — young people ages 18 to 34, heterosexual African-American women and people over 55 — are those most likely to think AIDS doesn’t affect them.

“We have communities in the city of Pasadena that, for all intents and purposes, are not listening to the statistics and not doing much in terms of prevention,” says Guthmiller.

To combat that, the Peer-to-Peer program will train young people, seniors and people from different cultural backgrounds to disseminate information in a way that is natural, non-invasive and open ended. Trainees will learn conversation starters and will be given certain questions to ask people they meet, either one-on-one or in an informal group setting.

At the same time, they will gather information from people they talk to and submit it to the AIDS Service Center employees on a monthly basis. From that information, the center can better tailor its services to those who need it most.  

Meanwhile, Malin is confident she can have those frank conversations with people she meets. She already speaks openly about her father’s death in hopes that people will see HIV for the devastating illness it still is, and is happy to spread the word even further.

“The only thing that reaches people is the personal anecdote,” she reckons. “The power of conversation is the power of the personal.”

The AIDS Service Center is located at 1845 N. Fair Oaks Blvd., Pasadena. To learn more about its new Peer-to-Peer program or to volunteer, call (626) 744-6140 or visit aidsservicecenter.org.

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