At a monthly community event in Overtown on Friday, most of the people passing through were looking to buy soul food from local businesses or dancing to soul and R&B music blaring from the nearby DJ booth.
But tucked away amid all the other tables and tents, next to the Lyric Theater, was a group of University of Miami researchers and volunteers offering free HIV testing as part of World AIDS Day.
Sonjia Kenya, a health researcher and professor at UM’s Miller School of Medicine, has led the school’s efforts to provide HIV testing and education in under-served communities, with a particular focus on black residents and immigrants from Caribbean countries.
The school’s CHAMP (community-based HIV Awareness for Minority Populations) program has operated since 2016, and Kenya said the focus has been on providing a laid-back approach and partnering with local leaders.
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“Part of what we’re doing now is using our model of hiring people in the community and then training them to test people in the community,” Kenya said.
Kenya said she’s affectionately known as the “HIV lady” as she walks through areas like Little Haiti, Liberty City and Overtown. She wears sneakers and avoids donning her lab coat as she meets with residents, former inmates and homeless people to educate them on HIV, the ease of testing and what to do if they are HIV positive.
“I’ve had focus groups in abandoned buildings,” Kenya said. “They don’t know that you can live with HIV, it’s not a death sentence.”
She said that one of the main things she’s seen after 10 years of research and community work is increased engagement with black members of the LGBT community, particularly in the churches they’ve partnered with to do testing.
“No one talks to me about conversion therapy anymore,” Kenya said.
One of the CHAMP program’s biggest backers has been the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and since the program launched in 2016 more than 600 people have been tested.
They don’t know that you can live with HIV, it’s not a death sentence.
Sonjia Kenya, health researcher and professor at UM’s Miller School of Medicine
In Overtown, Kenya has partnered with people like Emanuel Washington, an Overtown native and UM grad who wanted to bring the school’s resources back to his home base.
“I’ve realized all these resources that the University of Miami has are right next to where I grew up,” Washington said.
At Friday’s event, Washington made his way through the crowd, shaking hands and telling people about the testing.
He convinced Paul Meeks, 21, to take advantage of the free testing and hopes that he’ll also volunteer to work with the CHAMP program.
Meeks grew up in Overtown before moving to Liberty City and said that Washington provided “fatherly” advice in advising him to get tested and to spread the word of how straightforward the process can be.
“It feels good to me to have the testing because a lot of facilities aren’t doing this for free,” Meeks said. “It’s no reason not to get tested. It’s in the middle of the hood, literally.”
Kenya said that the CHAMP program plans to expand beyond its offices in Overtown and Liberty City and open a new office in Little Haiti. She also plans to emphasize the use of prophylaxis — antiretroviral pills and medicines — before or after having unprotected sex.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promotes “PEP” and “PrEP” as preventive medications to reduce a person’s chance of becoming HIV positive. PrEP is pre-exposure prophylaxis and should be used before having unprotected sex. PEP is considered as an emergency option and has to be used within the first three days after potential exposure to HIV.
Kenya said that when she thinks about her 4-year-old son, she imagines a world where HIV is no longer a public health concern.
“I’m pretty confident that when he goes to college he won’t have to worry about HIV,” Kenya said. “I really believe we have all the tools to eradicate HIV in our lifetime and we need to use them.”