Brandon Allen, a peer navigator and community health specialist with the South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council, wasn’t sure why his boss kept asking him to send her photos a few months ago.
Bambi W. Gaddist, the SCHAC’s executive director, didn’t like the first photo her young employee emailed so she asked him to send another. Then another. And another. Allen says he sent at least five photos to Gaddist.
“She didn’t like any pictures I sent,” says Allen, 24, who was curious about Gaddist’s motive, but didn’t question his boss.
Then, in October, he received a congratulatory email; he’d been selected for the POZ 100. Included was one of the pictures he had forwarded to Gaddist.
For the fourth installment of the annual awards, POZ magazine, a print and online publication for people living with and affected by HIV and/or AIDS, highlighted unsung heroes in the battle against AIDS who are HIV-positive. From bloggers and activists to doctors and educators, the list presents a variety of careers, ethnicities and ages.
Allen, an Army veteran who served a tour in Iraq, found out he was HIV-positive at SCHAC in 2010. He immediately became a volunteer for the organization. His work to educate the community earned a full-time position.
“I’m currently still in awe as far as being selected and being named,” Allen says. “I never envisioned the work I do to be that grand. I just think it’s something that’s necessary.”
At SCHAC, Allen is a counselor, tester and advocate, but his commitment is much deeper.
“I take the advocate part to heart. I take home my job every night,” says Allen, who sometimes invites clients to his home for informal gatherings. “It’s more than me going to that office every day.”
He prefers to build relationships with the SCHAC clients he encounters.
“I don’t treat you like a client; I treat you as a person,” Allen says.
SCHAC’s mission is to reduce the rate of HIV and AIDS in South Carolina and to improve the quality of life of citizens impacted by the virus. HIV and AIDS — Human immunodeficiency virus infection/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome — inched toward an epidemic in the 1980s. Although there isn’t a cure, early detection and modern medicine have made both manageable chronic conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 15,000 people infected with HIV and AIDS in South Carolina and more than 1.1 million people nationally.
At SCHAC, Allen has an open-door policy and he shares his personal story with clients.
“I feel like knowledge kept to oneself is selfish,” he says. “I’m surviving it.”
How do they respond?
“Some of them will continue the conversation like it’s nothing,” says Allen, who graduated from Allen University in January. “Some will ask, ‘What’s it like? Do you know who you got it from?’ It establishes our relationship beyond what we have in the office.”
Allen was recently the keynote speaker of a PHARAOH intervention program for incarcerated HIV-positive and -negative men, and he was a panelist on the Gospel of Healing HIV Community Forum. Being named to the POZ 100 has spurred him to work harder.
“It makes me want to live up to the expectations that something of that magnitude holds,” Allen says. “I want to live up to this honor.”
The Soda City Chronicles is a column about interesting people in and around Columbia.
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