The Delaware Water Gap area, based in the Pocono mountains, has been growing steadily and now includes a diverse population. First, there are the people born and raised in the Poconos. There is also a university situated in a small town in the Delaware Water Gap area, which has brought in many people to the area. There is also a gay resort which brings in members of the gay and lesbian community. The most recent phenomenon has been an influx of Philadelphia and New York City commuters.
The community in the Delaware Water Gap has many faces. Monroe County, located within the Valley of the Pocono Mountains, has been targeted by AIDSNET to receive funding for HIV prevention services. After a needs assessment was conducted, the "Monroe County HIV Prevention Project" was formed as a not-for-profit organization conducting HIV programs and outreach for this community. Funded for the past four years, the project's goals include HIV education, condom distribution, and the dissemination of safer sex messages through print media.
Housed in the East Stroudsburg University Health Department, the program is coordinated by Dr. Steven Godin, who has worked with many graduate students on this project. Students have the opportunity to coordinate HIV education and outreach in many venues. Many students have been recruited to take part in the project and serve the community.
The students work in the community visiting many high-risk populations. The coordinators recruit people from the community to work as peer educators. The staff profile is diverse. Those involved know the community well, and know where to reach the people at high risk for HIV. The staff makes regular visits to "adult" bookstores, frequently go to the gay resorts and bars, and also go through town to reach youths. They are well known in the community, especially by teenagers who want information about HIV/AIDS.
There are many stumbling blocks to reaching such a rural community. The community is very set in its views as a group, although there are some new influences from newcomers to the area. In general, people from the community have expressed their ideas about HIV and some have stated "HIV is not going to affect my family in any way"; "only gay people get HIV"; "you can get HIV from touching someone who has HIV"; "I'm not at risk because I am married"; and "my teenager is not having sex." These prehistoric ideas show the need for prevention in this area.
The Monroe County HIV Prevention Project has taken some very aggressive action in such a community, creating ways of breaking through the barriers to help with behavior change. They have made safer sex materials available and accessible. They have also made testing more accessible by using Orasure testing in their outreach efforts. Hundreds of people in the Delaware Water Gap area are reached every month. This is the only way that people in rural areas will gain knowledge, skills, materials and access to HIV testing.
Laurie Cullen is Body Positive's Director of Community Outreach & Education.