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World AIDS Day

Program targets Black youth

Lisa Olivia Fitch | 11/25/2015, midnight

The theme for the 2015 World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, is “The Time to Act is Now,” and on the official U.S. Government website, www.aids.gov, managed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, visitors can immediately find local services and testing sites; learn more about the epidemic; and read about the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.

Since 1981, when the first official reporting of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) began, there have been a lot of changes in the ways the disease has been addressed.

“AIDS was a death sentence back in day,” Strength for the Journey L.A. Co-Dean Charles McWells said. “That was before all the new medications came out.”

For the past five years, McWells has been working with Strength for the Journey, a program that was initiated 28 years ago by Rev. Al Burt, a United Methodist Church pastor who had AIDS and wanted to help other AIDS patients in their transition out of this life.

“At first the program provided an end-of-life experience,” McWells said. “As things have changed medically, and AIDS has become a chronically manageable disease, now we provide strength for the journey of living with the disease.”

The Strength for the Journey program, which McWells co-leads with Rev. Paul A. Hill, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, began as an annual, five-day summer retreat (camp) for HIV positive adults. It's currently supported by the Cal-Pac Conference of the United Methodist Church and its local camps. Participants need not be church members or involved in any religion.

The program is sponsoring its third annual “Hip Hop Café” event on Feb. 6, 2016, which will be open to the general public and feature spoken word, poetry and dance, all with HIV-prevention messages.

“It's going to be held in conjunction with National Black HIV AIDS Awareness Day,” McWells said. “We've had over 100 folks each time, and more than a third of those have been under age of 30, so we've been successful in bringing out our target population and giving them an opportunity to create the event themselves.”

More than one-third of gay Black young men are [HIV] positive, said McWells, and he hopes to have a mobile testing van available at the event, which will be held in the fellowship hall of Grace Church.

McWells is also reaching out to schools and churches in South Los Angeles to recruit youth who can develop entertainment with HIV-information messages.

If youth events like these are successful in helping to prevent additional HIV/AIDS cases, eventually the summer camps could become obsolete, said McWells.

“As camp co-deans, we were charged with recruiting more African American campers,” said McWells, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1996. “At first, our numbers were only 20 percent Black. But more than 52 percent of new infections are among African Americans.”

“We [Blacks] were underrepresented [in the program], so we immediately began a campaign to promote Strength for the Journey to agencies which serve populations in South L.A.,” McWells added. “As a result, we're now at 54 percent [African American].”

The camp is five days long and averages more than 100 participants each summer.

“People can do as much or as little as they want,” McWells said, explaining that the camps provide a variety of recreational activities—hiking, ball games, swimming, talent shows, dances, fashion shows and Bible studies.

“I'm most proud of the workshops,” McWells added. “There are 30 empowerment workshops to choose from covering topics ranging from medication adherence to the benefits of yoga as a treatment for HIV to developing healthy relationships to leaning how to disclose your HIV status to family.”

McWells said plans are in the works to make the program year-round for camp participants. People living with HIV have much higher rates of depression, as they live with a disease that still has a lot of stigma attached to it.

Depression further compromises their immune system, as depressed patients can find themselves engaging in risky behaviors—unprotected sex, drugs and alcohol.

“We actually did some surveys during the last three years at camp,” McWells said. “Depression was off the charts at the beginning of camp. But by the end of camp, depression had plummeted to levels below that of the general population.

“So in the subsequent year, we expanded the study, doing follow up surveys 30, 60 and 90 days after the camp,” McWells said. “For up to 60 days, the depression levels stayed low. So, what if we could create something like the campus experience every 60 days? Could we keep it [depression] down low over the year?”

“Besides the information, people get to fellowship with their camp friends again,” McWells said. “There's a meal, a raffle and games.”

“By re-creating the camp workshop experience, we anticipate that we can demonstrate this model helps people sustain lower depression levels.”

For additional information about the Hip-Hop Café or the summer camp, contact McWells at (213) 626.6411.