One of Benita Paschall's first reactions when Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley declared a "state of emergency" in the city's fight against AIDS this week was: "Well, it's about time."
"It's been an emergency. It's been an emergency for over 10 to 15 years," she said yesterday. "The wreckage has already reached mammoth proportions."
The head of the Baltimore Prevention Coalition, a private nonprofit group with its headquarters in Mount Vernon, has been working as an AIDS- and HIV-prevention activist since the 1980s. She has done outreach on the streets, held education sessions at the city jail and sponsored "safe-sex parties" for women in Cherry Hill.
She has seen tragedy and death almost to the point where, in her words, she has become "jaded." But she remembers individual cases, such as the man with AIDS at the Maryland Penitentiary who told her he wasn't going to live through the day - he didn't - and asked that she call his mother.
"I've spent a life with the horror: children whose parents are addicted [to drugs] or HIV-infected and then they die and then the kids are, like, up for grabs," said the 45-year-old West Baltimore native.
As executive director of the coalition, which has 12 employees and a budget of more than $500,000, Paschall doesn't do much prevention preaching herself on the streets anymore. But her group, founded in 1992, reaches out to people in all corners of the city, urging them to practice safe sex and get tested for HIV, syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.
As of June last year, about half of the 23,664 people in Maryland with HIV or AIDS lived in Baltimore, according to the state AIDS Administration. A study last year funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed an alarmingly high number of young gay men, particularly black men, being infected in the city.
No patience with labels
When it comes to HIV and AIDS, Paschall knows everyone tends to talk about labels - gay, straight, bisexual - but she doesn't like to. She thinks they cloud the real issue, which is changing unsafe sexual behaviors.
"Your orientation doesn't matter," she said. "It's the behavior that matters."
When she learned a few months ago that the area around Mount Vernon had the city's highest rates of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, she immediately dispatched a four-person team - a gay man, a heterosexual man, a heterosexual woman and a trans- gender woman - to counsel prostitutes, their customers and others, including drug users, who are at risk of contracting disease.
"The rationale is, if you have this team, no one should feel like they're targeted negatively," she said. "When you bring them together, it really connotes normalcy."
Under her leadership, the coalition launched another initiative known as "TransAm," which supports the city's African-American transsexual community - offering referrals for HIV testing and substance abuse treatment.
The group publishes a newsletter and sponsors "Ladies Social Teas" every Wednesday.
Paschall is both empathetic and no-nonsense. She is not afraid to talk about bodily fluids. She is the type of person who would - and did - scold a young boy for trying to clean her windshield at a gas station for spare change, then offer him a job.
Not a calling
She more or less stumbled into her own profession. The second of three daughters of a mailman and a schoolteacher, she grew up in a neighborhood where it was common, she said, for boys to end up in trouble, or jail, or both.
After graduating from Edmondson High School, she got a bachelor's degree from Morgan State University in mental health. A few years later, she got a master's in criminal justice from the University of Baltimore.
An internship as a drug counselor during college got her into the public health field. She stayed in it, she said, more because she was good at it than because she thought it was her calling. She doesn't refer to her work that way, though she does think she is doing what she is meant to do.
"I don't think I was called to do it," she said. "I think I'm supposed to do it."
Education and outreach
Paschall, who loves rhythm-and-blues and the Temptations and says she has read every book Stephen King has written, joined the Baltimore Prevention Coalition in 1996. She had worked previously for the Baltimore Health Department, educating staff and inmates at the city jail about HIV.
At HERO, the Health Education Resource Organization, she ran a street outreach initiative training recovering drug addicts to educate other members of their community.
On a separate project, she counseled women of childbearing age in Cherry Hill, showing videos about HIV prevention while they ate tuna sandwiches.
"It was a kind of `girlfriend' way to share with these women about the risks of HIV," she said.
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