HIV information program reaching black women

April 11, 1993|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Staff Writer

The popcorn bowl was making the rounds and the air was filled with giggles as a question-and-answer party game hit full swing.

Then someone blew up a condom like a balloon.

But this was a party with serious overtones. The man and three women seated comfortably in this Towson apartment's small living room had gathered to participate in an HIV-AIDS outreach program run by Baltimore County's Office of Substance Abuse.

Called Project Hope, the effort to deliver information about HIV -- thehuman immunodeficiency virus -- to black women began last year and by next month will have reached nearly 550 people.

Nationwide, the number of AIDS cases among females is growing at a much faster rate than cases among males. For example, the number of women with AIDS jumped 15 percent from 1990 to 1991; in the same period, the number of men with AIDS increased less than 4 percent, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And in Baltimore County, 348 AIDS cases have been reported. Of those, 128 are black men or women -- an inordinate number, because the county is 11 percent black, says Michael Gimbel, director of the Office of Substance Abuse.

In the county, 23 black women are known to have AIDS. "Black females are the group seeing the largest increase," Mr. Gimbel says.

The idea of Project Hope is to use information as a kind of inoculation, reaching people untouched by the virus and having them pass the information along.

A festive atmosphere is part of the project's strategy.

The Q-and-A party game debunked stereotypes about people with AIDS. (For example, not just gay men and intravenous drug users are at risk.) And the inflated condom was used to illustrate what happens when Vaseline or other oil-based lubricants touch the latex contraceptives. (They break.)

In fact, Project Hope, funded by a $10,000 grant from the AIDS Administration in the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, is loosely modeled on the concept of Tupperware parties.

"We began asking ourselves: What kinds of incentives can we build in to host a party?" says Mr. Gimbel. "And we thought: In Tupperware, the host gets a discount or a gift certificate."

Rather than a discount, county residents who volunteer to hold a Project Hope party receive a $25 gift certificate for food (no cigarettes, no alcohol). In addition, the Office of Substance Abuse sends a specialist laden with refreshments, a video, condoms and pamphlets, says Mary Beth Stapleton, the county outreach specialist. Guests are encouraged to give their own parties.

"It's a good gathering," says Bernice Voss, hostess of the Towsonparty held last month, who learned about the program from her 14-year-old daughter. "There were a lot of things mentioned that I myself didn't know about safe sex and about HIV."

Although developed to target black women, the project, which has incorporated elements of outreach efforts used in Richmond, Va., and in Ocean City, is now attracting men and teen-agers, says Melissa Ruff, a county prevention specialist. Last year, the Office of Substance Abuse reached 250 people through 18 parties; by the end of the first five months of 1993, the program will have reached 293 people through 27 parties.

The effort was selected for funding by the state AIDS administration because it can reach unique segments of the county's population, says Larry C. Simmons, the administration's coordinator for ethnic community programs.

In contrast to areas of lower-income housing in the city, which can be targeted through housing projects, lower-income housing the county is often more spread out -- in apartment complexes or smaller developments, he says.

The AIDS administration also funds programs such as a statewide effort to provide HIV prevention information to black church leaders, another that targets black males through community-based organizations, and Sisters Together in Reaching, which provides HIV-education and support services to metropolitan-area women either infected or affected by AIDS.

"I find that [going to people's homes] is a good way to get to these hard-to-reach populations," Ms. Ruff says. "Getting them to come to a health department is very hard and I guarantee if we had a program here in this [substance abuse] office nobody would come."

News of the program is spread mostly by word of mouth -- from party guest to friend and so on, she says. Ms. Voss, for example, learned about Project Hope from her daughter, Alison Pannell, who attended a party especially tailored for teens, at a friend's house.

"Alison got a lot from that Hope Party and asked if she could have one. She had one girlfriend in particular who had gotten pregnant and had an abortion. Taking that into consideration, I chose to let her have a party," Ms. Voss says.

For her daughter's gathering, Ms. Voss, who is a medical-assistance case coordinator for the state, called the parents of each teen-ager, as is required by the program. In about a half-dozen calls, she got one rejection.

Several of the parents who gave their approval saw the program as a way to deal with a difficult subject, Ms. Voss says. "They didn't know how to approach talking about sex, much less the subject of AIDS."

After the teen party proved a success, Ms. Voss decided to invite a few adults over for refreshments and some information. "There were a lot of things I didn't know myself that I wanted to know and didn't really know where to look or who to ask," she says.

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