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Peer Counseling Perspectives

By Jeff Smith

September 2001

We need your help! The Peer Counseling Program at AIDS Survival Project (ASP) is trying to reach the African-American community and help those living with HIV by providing an ear to listen and referrals to places that can offer help. According to an article in USA Today, African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, yet make up 37 percent of all reported AIDS cases. In Georgia, African-Americans make up 29 percent of the state's population, yet make up over 60 percent of the state's AIDS cases.

AIDS Survival Project is trying to do our part in making sure that AIDS mortality rates do not remain nearly ten times higher among African-Americans than among whites both in Georgia and across the United States.

Peer counselors at AIDS Survival Project take calls from persons living with and affected by HIV/AIDS from Georgia, the U.S. and from across the world. Callers and visitors include people who have family living with HIV, who are worried that they might have been exposed to HIV or who want to know more about HIV and how it is transmitted. AIDS Survival Project peer counselors offer the added connection of speaking to another person who is living with HIV, who has "been there, done that." If an African-American caller, male or female, were able to call and speak to an African-American peer counselor they would have the added bonus of speaking to someone who not only is HIV-positive, but is from their community -- a peer.

Anyone who volunteers as a peer counselor learns how to live their own life more fully while helping others. Although volunteers are not paid, they receive immeasurable wealth in terms of HIV knowledge and experience. They are trained in how to find information for clients in our Treatment Resource Center, on the Internet, or on our HIV resource database. Peer counselors also receive training in how to listen actively and interact with others in a non-judgmental manner. All of these skills are necessary to be a peer counselor; yet are also valuable in helping the volunteers themselves live more powerfully with HIV.

This is where the difficult part comes into play. You see -- I'm white and I know a lot about HIV/AIDS and where to go when I don't know the answer to a question. I know how to manage the Peer Counseling Program and train new peer counselors. However, I don't know what to do to make the program more friendly to people of color who need help, or how to reach those that are interested in becoming peer counselors. I don't know what to do to let everyone in the African-American community know AIDS Survival Project is not an agency just for white people. We are here to help everybody who is infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. We have people accessing our services from every conceivable racial and ethnic background on a regular basis. I don't know how to address the cultural differences in such a diverse community. However, I do understand that persons living with HIV/AIDS in the African-American community are subject to ostracism, scorn and judgement by the larger African-American community.

What I do know is that the peer counselors and I really want to help make a difference. I had a rare call today from an African-American gentleman living with HIV who is interested in becoming a peer counselor. It seems he wanted to volunteer after seeing how much the ASP peer counselor his family spoke to helped him and his loved ones. In one call, the peer counselor was able to help find resources for him and offer help to his family in coming to terms with his HIV status.

He said to me, "I want to become a peer counselor because the more I get involved, the better I feel about myself. Like they say, knowledge equals power, and I want to use that power to help others and myself."

I know HIV affects everyone and we need to work together to make a difference in every community. I also know we are ready and waiting to help anyone in need. We are also ready and waiting to train anyone who is HIV positive to become a peer counselor. Please help us!

If you would like to help by becoming a peer counselor or have ideas about how to more effectively reach out to the African-American community, please call Jeff Smith at 404-874-7926, extension 12.

This article was provided by AIDS Survival Project. It is a part of the publication Survival News. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

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