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As part of this week’s coverage of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, I interviewed a few professionals working in the field of AIDS-related services.

My first subject for this “People and Places” profile (in which I interview under-the-radar community activists, leaders and “all-stars”) is Sherrise Palomino.  Sherrise is an HIV Prevention Coordinator at BronxWorks, a community-based organization that has been providing wrap-around services for the Bronx community at-large since 1972 (under the name Citizens Advice Bureau).  She told me about her current work with the youth and what led her to pursue her passion. What was most compelling was how she stressed the importance of empowerment and open dialogue when discussing HIV prevention and awareness.

1) What HIV/AIDS-related organizations have you worked/volunteered with?
Currently, I work at BronxWorks [where] I do sexual health work with adolescents. My program is funded by the AIDS Institute to do HIV/AIDS prevention, STI prevention, and pregnancy prevention among adolescents as well as provide leadership training and skills.

Prior to BronxWorks, I did HIV testing and counseling at the AIDS Center of Queens County (ACQC). I started out as an intern for ACQC’s ADAP [AIDS Drug Assistance Program] and I was recommended to apply for the position in the HIV education and prevention department.

2) Tell me more about BronxWorks and your activities with the youth.
At BronxWorks, my program is about educating a group of adolescents about safe sex and decision-making. They do advocacy work and projects to educate other teens and the community at large.

Some of our projects include making a website which will be launched soon (www.identiteen.org), delivering messages via twitter and facebook, and organizing a community health fair amongst many other things that we are working on.

3) Why have you chosen to work in this field?

I never imagined working in this field. I got into the field because I had interned at UNA-USA (United Nations Association of the United States of America). While there I wrote a proposal the program manager of HERO, a pilot program that provided educational and psycho-social assistance to AIDS orphans at 38 schools in four countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. They ended up hiring me for a short-term contract where I did a lot of awareness and education about the issues facing the youth at our schools.

What compelled me the most about HERO was the video that the staff made about that program and it featured the students at the schools in Africa. Watching that video moved me. It gave me goose bumps. I felt so proud to be a part of an organization that was impacted our people’s lives for the better. I was truly honored to be a part of the UNA-USA and HERO in particular. Immediately after I saw the video for the first time, I called my mom and told her about it. I said to her, “I’m going to change those kids lives.” And I believed it!

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay beyond the contract with them. But that experience drove me. From there, I left to focus on HIV. I got the internship at ACQC to build experience so that I would be able to go back to the international sector to do HIV/AIDS work with women and children (the most impacted group globally).

4) What sustains your passion?
I would say what sustains my passion the most is seeing the potential in the kids that I work with. A lot of them struggle with so many social, academic, and family-related issues. It is nice to see that I can make a decision with them.

I also look at the broader picture because I am so impassioned by politics– that empowering these youth and this community can change the course of history, not just for these people, but for our city and country. Opening up young minds to the world around them is something that I strive for. It will give them a chance to fulfill their destinies as they see it.

HIV prevention is more than telling people to just wear a condom and get tested. It’s about empowerment.

It’s about changing the social dynamics of a community. It’s about improved the economic status of those most impacted- helping people to bring themselves up from their own boot straps. So for me, my work is about empowering youth and impacting them so that hopefully they will fulfill their potential and be who they want and can be.

5) What is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced when educating youth?
The biggest challenge I deal with is getting teens to think before they act. It’s mostly about getting them to work on their decision-making skills, negotiating condom use, and thinking about the consequences of their actions. So many of the sexual health curricula focuses primarily on education but we need to teach them the skills they need to navigate the pressures of sex, of dating, of friends. We need to build self-esteem. Sexual activity has been so accelerate for this generation. There’s no more going around the bases before you get home. They are starting off with oral sex. It’s so easy to do and do it with a lot of people. Some teens don’t see the value of controlling their bodies.

6) In statistics year after year, African-American women are affected disproportionately by HIV/AIDS. What do young women in particular need to do for prevention?
A lot of girls have the attitude that boys can have sex so easily and with a lot of girls why can’t we. But this pseudo-feminist notion is about equality and empowerment. I think a lot of girls are confused because of the messages that they get not just from home (because a lot of parents aren’t talking to their kids about sex) but from media, entertainment, and friends. Equality is about doing what the boys are doing, it’s about having choices. It’s about being able to make your own decisions. But for a lot girls, especially misguided and immature girls, its about deciding to hanging with the boys.

7) Any final words on NBHAAD and what we can do to take action?
We need dialogue. We need to stop making sex a taboo issue.

We need to address what’s happening and we need to re-examine our priorities because AIDS still kills.

As Americans, I think we see AIDS as something that mostly happens in Africa but its in our homes as well. And we need to face that.

For more information about BronxWorks programs, visit bronxworks.org or call their Single Stop hotline at (718) 508-3123 or (718) 731-3114.