Versus The Virus: Part 2
(BlackDoctor.org) — In late 2010, activists at the AIDS Service Center NYC (ASCNYC) realized that their support services for gay men with HIV were not doing enough. The center’s programs effectively taught middle-aged men–those who had lived with the virus for years and sometimes decades–how to cope with the side effects of their medicine regimens and prepare for visits to their doctors, as well as what to eat to avoid sickness. Meanwhile, young adults came to ASCNYC needing a different kind of support: a safe space where they could be themselves and come to terms with their newly HIV-positive status among understanding peers.
As a peer educator and mentor, Gary Sneed, 42, worked with both the older and younger men and saw the need for programs designed specifically for each group. With a handful of the young, male patients of color, Sneed founded Sexy With a Goal (SWAG) in October 2010. Within months, the program had grown to more than 70 members through word of mouth and social networking.
Many members of the group sport a silver-and-gold SWAG medallion on a chain around their neck, symbolizing the goals of empowerment and education. The original sits over Sneed’s broad chest as his voice booms through the small room in Manhattan’s East Village that SWAG calls home. Of those who attend the support groups, “not all are HIV positive,” Sneed said, “but all take it seriously. We all go through troubles in life, and sometimes you just want to vent. Talking to your peers works.”
SWAG’s support extends far beyond its East Village meeting room. Sneed tends to the young community through Facebook, text messages and safe parties across the city as much as he does through the in-person group sessions. He even hired some of the young members to facilitate SWAG’s thrice-weekly group meetings. After each session, Sneed hands out $4.50 MetroCards to those who need help getting home to distant parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx, where the subway tracks often end.
The outer boroughs are where the epidemic is spreading the fastest, say health officials. “The epidemic follows the A and C subway lines,” says Jeffrey Birnbaum, M.D., M.P.H., who founded and directs the Brooklyn-based HIV-prevention organization Health & Education Alternatives for Teens (HEAT). Those trains run through Brookyln neighborhoods that are home to large and culturally influential African American communities. “East New York, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville. That’s just where they live,” Dr. Birnbaum said.