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.