Girlfriends Project uses parties to help prevent HIV/AIDS

From the Pittsburg Post-Gazette:

They’re not your mother’s Tupperware parties. But those parties were the inspiration and model for an innovative HIV/AIDS and domestic violence education program Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force is using to target at-risk African-American women in Duquesne, Clairton and Braddock.

It’s called the Girlfriends Project, and it’s been so successful since project coordinator Lisa Dukes began staging parties at hostesses’ homes in January that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked the task force to introduce it at the CDC’s 2009 National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta Aug. 23.

“We expected we might get 50 to 60 women [over a year’s time],” said Daphne Parker, director of prevention services for the task force.

Instead the Girlfriends Project reached nearly three times that many over the first 6 1/2 months of 2009. Through July 15, Ms. Dukes had staged 16 parties with two more pending. She had seen 148 women, 135 of whom took advantage of the free, confidential HIV testing she offers at the end of her presentation. None of the tests was positive.

“But I know those women are out there,” Ms. Dukes said. “I will be reaching those kinds of women.”

African Americans comprise just 7 percent of the total population in southwestern Pennsylvania but 41 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS, according to Allegheny County Health Department statistics provided by the task force.

“The CDC tells us that 25 percent of the people who have HIV don’t know and are responsible for 70 percent of the new infections each year,” said Kathi Boyle, the task force’s executive director.

The parties work like this:

Women, usually five to eight of them but sometimes as many as 15, get together at the home of a friend, who must be able to provide a private area in which Ms. Dukes can do the HIV/AIDS swab test one woman at a time after her talk. The task force provides refreshments and the hostess receives a $50 gift card for volunteering the use of her home. The attendees get $20 gift cards.

The party starts with some ice-breaking conversation, an HIV/AIDS quiz, raffles and giveaways of things like body lotions, and the opening of gift bags containing condoms and other safe-sex products. Then comes Ms. Dukes’ educational program, in which the women learn how to protect themselves from both HIV/AIDS and domestic violence.

“I teach them about AIDS as well as HIV because there’s a difference,” Ms. Dukes said. “I tell them if they’re exposed to HIV it doesn’t mean they have AIDS [but] they have to take care so they don’t get it.”

There is practical information about safe sex, as well.

“I tell them to use water-based lubricants, not products like Vaseline, which break down the texture of latex.” Ms. Dukes said.

She also demonstrates the proper way to put on male condoms and female condoms. “I think the women really get a kick out of learning how to use a condom the right way,” Ms. Dukes added.

After the presentation, Ms. Dukes gives another quiz on HIV/AIDS to see what the women have learned. Then, she offers the HIV/AIDS swab tests. “That’s what’s so new and so exciting: They can get tested in a woman’s house,” she said.

She sends the tests on to the health department for processing. If there were a positive, the result would come back to Ms. Dukes, who would inform the woman.

“It’s safe sex parties combined with Tupperware parties,” Ms. Boyle said.

The format emerged during a brainstorming session when someone brought up the Tupperware party idea, which for a generation filled kitchen cabinets with plastic containers.

But the roots of the Girlfriends Project actually go back to a CDC study six years ago that concluded that African-American women ages 18 to 29 had become a leading group contracting HIV/AIDS.

Meanwhile, an 18-month behavioral study by a CDC scientist also concluded “that HIV-positive African-American women lacked self-esteem, self-confidence and the confidence and strength to discuss sexual practices with their partners,” according to a task force release.

With those two reports in mind, the task force implemented a CDC HIV prevention program called Sisters Informing Sisters About Topics on AIDS, or SISTA. Besides HIV and safe-sex education, SISTA covered assertiveness training.

But, SISTA comprises five weekly, two-hour sessions, and, Ms. Dukes said, “a lot of women didn’t want to make that kind of commitment.” In addition, she said, “a lot of women were discussing domestic violence, and we were not capturing that in SISTA.”

The Girlfriends Project was designed for Braddock, Clairton and Duquesne “because we knew nobody was doing outreach there,” she said.

They got funding for a pilot program that ran from January to March 2008. Following that success the task force got a total of $170,000 in grants, enough to run the Sisters Project for two years.

“It started with a grant from the FISA Foundation,” Ms. Boyle said. Then came another from the Staunton Farm Foundation.

The task force printed up fliers and brochures last fall and distributed them in the target communities at health and community centers like the Duquesne Health Center and the Urban League. “We attended [their] meetings and talked about the program and what it offered. That’s how we got the word out,” Ms. Dukes said.

The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since. “It’s overwhelming.”

“Some women I have to turn down because they’re not in that [target] area, so I offer them basic HIV and AIDS counseling,” she added. That program is called HIV 101.

The task force still offers SISTA at its Penn Avenue headquarters in East Liberty. Like the Girlfriends Project, Ms. Dukes said, it targets African-American women. She notes, though, that there have been a few white and Hispanic women at the Girlfriends Project parties.

Ms. Parker, meanwhile, is preparing to make the presentation at the CDC convention. “We may be able to get it published and then other groups can use it,” she said.


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