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Transition to Hope

By Gary Bell

July 1, 2009

My name is Gary J. Bell and I am the executive director of BEBASHI (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health). Founded in 1985, BEBASHI was the country's first AIDS services organization targeting urban minority communities. We offer a continuum of HIV/AIDS/STI prevention and direct care services primarily in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

I have been working in the HIV/AIDS arena since 1987. At that time, I worked for another non profit, Episcopal Community Services (ECS). ECS is a large, old, traditional multipurpose organization that has been serving those in need for over a century.

In 1987, we were approached by the City of Philadelphia, who had begun developing HIV/AIDS programming and wanted ECS to be a community partner. At the time, most of my experience had been with homebound people, mostly elderly or disabled. However, it was during my time at ECS that the HIV/AIDS crisis really grabbed me and hasn't let go.

The telling moment was my first encounter with someone living with HIV. As one might imagine, despite considerable training, many of the staff back in 1987 were hesitant to actually go into the home and work closely with people living with HIV. We knew much less about HIV in 1987 than we do now. Therefore, I decided to visit a client first, to hopefully lend the staff a little courage and to let them know that I wouldn't send them anywhere that I wasn't willing to go first.

In 1987, I believed, as many did, that HIV was a gay white disease. However, my first client was a middle-aged African-American mother of six children, living in a housing project. When I walked into her bedroom, she was surrounded by several family members, all looking alarmed with concern. She looked weak and ashen. She had just received her AZT [Retrovir] treatment, the only anti-HIV drug available at the time.

Back then, AZT was given in much higher, more toxic doses and patients were often quite ill for several day afterwards. To say that I was shocked to see this black family struggling to make sense of this frightening illness was an understatement. But for me, came the grim realization that HIV was not a gay white disease and that as it migrated to women and families that the emotional toll would be extensive.

During my tenure at ECS, we significantly expanded our services, adding case management; home delivered meals and a food cupboard: therapeutic counseling and a unique program called STAAR that offered counseling and support to children whose parents where infected with HIV, many of whom were already orphaned.

There were other experiences that solidified my commitment to working in the HIV/AIDS arena: sharing tears with a dying mother who struggled to determine a permanent placement for her son after she died; or consoling a despondent, suicidal child who was being teased in his neighborhood because his mother has HIV.

In 1996, I was directed to BEBASHI to continue my work in HIV/AIDS, where I have been for the last 14 years. My story, like the history of HIV/AIDS, is still being written. Stay tuned...

To contact Gary, click here.

See Also
More Views on HIV/AIDS in the African-American Community

Reader Comments:

Comment by: 2005 (Philaddelphia) Mon., Apr. 5, 2010 at 12:51 am UTC

I think I know why more women are infected w/the virus.
-Educated women are less likely to asked by a physician if they want to be tested. If they speak w/intelligence they are less likely to be asked.
- Women are trusting and tend to settle. They rather have a piece of a man, than no man.
-If the male partner refuses to wear a condom , the woman will back off, fearing she will be alone
-some woman reveal majority of their business do in a relationship and don't listen to leads that their partner is not being faithful; the male knows more about female, than she knows about him
-and the list continues
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Comment by: Nikki (Philaddelphia) Fri., Mar. 26, 2010 at 2:42 am UTC
People will discuss the latest fashion, eating, partying, and what's taking place w/ celebraties, but they refuse to discuss epidemics that are growing in their communities. If they do touch on HIV/AIDS, obesity, diabetes etc., it's misinformations passed on from one person to the next. A black church can have a congregation w/ Type 2 diabetics, high blood pressure, high cholestrol, etc. and still serve sugary drinks, fried foods, salt and call it a day. Eating tea sandwiches, fruit and veggies free of meat is frowned upon.
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Comment by: ronnie simone stephens (austin Texas) Thu., Jul. 2, 2009 at 1:56 pm UTC
I'm a outreach specialist for the SAMHSA @ the wright house wellness center in Austin Texas. i have been in the field of HIV prevention since 1982 when no knew what was going on. I'm from New Jersey but came in to recovery in Texas as well as having HIV move into my world. Coming from the east coast, I saw a lot of people die and in my addiction I saw more people die. Now going on 11 years, I'm still around. Numbers are not that good, but i do my job. The prison system here in texas has a mass transmission of HIV/AIDS and services down there and services out here are just is bad. Sometime i just want to go home and work up there. I used to hang out in center city downtown philly.
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Transition to Hope

This year marks Bell's 14th as the executive director of the Philadelphia-based BEBASHI (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health), founded in 1985 as the nation's first AIDS organization serving African Americans with HIV. Bell has been widely praised, not only for increasing funding and accountability at a time when HIV donations have plummeted, but also for launching such innovative programs as a women's initiative, prison-discharge planning, and, most recently, a diabetes intervention.

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