To combat the alarming statistics concerning the high incidences of HIV/AIDS cases among black women, Access Community Health Network has come up with an aggressive program to address such contributing factors as risky sexual behavior.

The SISTA Project (Sisters Informing Sisters about Topics on AIDS) is a social skills training intervention program aimed at reducing HIV sexual risk behavior among black women.

“The women selected for this program are women who are at risk of engaging in unprotected sex,” said Katrina Holmes, SISTA Program Manager. “Some of these women are in jail, in shelters or in other social service programs. “These are high-risk heterosexual women, who aren’t HIV-positive but who engage in unprotected sex, use IV drugs and abuse alcohol.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which funds the program, recently revealed that the leading cause of death for black women aged 25-34 years was HIV/AIDS. It was the third leading cause of death for black women aged 35-44, and the fourth leading cause of death for black women aged 45-54 and for Hispanic women aged 35-44.

SISTA began in November 2004 through a grant from the CDC as a prevention program to serve as a companion to ACCESS’ HIV treatment center. The sessions are for women ages of 15-49, consisting of five, two-hour sessions.

They run year-round beginning with new participants following each five-week cycle.

A new session of meetings will began in mid-September.

Classes are held primarily at the ACCESS office on 3800 W. Madison. Holmes, however, said she, along with Kimberly Pierce, prevention specialist, and Brenda-Myers-Powell, peer advocate facilitator, will travel to the participant’s home if needed.

“Our sessions are gender- and culturally-relevant. This means that the sessions are for African American women, conducted by African American women,” said Holmes. “There is artwork, aroma therapy and music that make us ‘one.’ The entire environment is Afro-centered.”

The sessions are designed to empower participants to make better choices when it comes to sexual partners and situations. Topics cover such issues as HIV/AIDS education, ethnic/gender pride and behavioral skills management.

“We simply want to help women explore ways to lead healthier lives and make healthier choices in regard to reducing their risk for HIV, as well as, other STD’s,” Holmes said.

“In our role-playing exercises, we set up several scenarios for the women and ask them how they would handle each situation,” said Myers-Powell.

There are two additional “booster” sessions that are held approximately two and five months after a participant’s graduation. These sessions determine whether she is meeting all her commitments or if she may need additional counseling and resources. “Often there are issues of domestic violence, substance abuse and low self-esteem that need to be addressed,” Holmes added, “and our case managers, Kim Pierce and Brenda Myers-Powell, work with participants to make sure they are receiving proper attention.”

Celeste J. Curry of Englewood, is one of 121 women who completed the most recent program year. Curry, 36, a mother of three sons, and who attends sessions at the Madison office met Holmes through the Women’s Furlough Program operated out of Cook County Corrections.

“I kept putting things off but I finally decided to join the program,” Curry said. “I completed the program this past April and recently went back for a reunion celebration where all participants where gathered.”

Curry said that education is essential in empowering women to make wise choices, and insist that their partners use condoms.

“Women have to be aggressive about using condoms and about where they stand in a relationship,” she said. “This [life] is not a dress rehearsal, and young women are blinded to the truth – with them freelancing sex and not [being] too concerned about contracting diseases, particularly HIV/AIDS.”

Curry credits SISTA with teaching participants self respect and self fulfillment. “The environment and atmosphere bring a sense of openness and serenity,” said Curry. “If you know yourself and feel good about yourself, and you can stand to look in the mirror and accept what’s looking back at you – you’ll know there’s more to life than just having sex.”

SISTA participants are given assignments in which they do role-playing so they are at ease before addressing the issue with their partners. Familiarity with a mate creates trust, and often if there are doubts, it’s better to concentrate on protection until a more committed relationship exists, Holmes advises.

“We find that if a woman has been with her mate for two or three years, she tends to believe what he says. They dismiss whatever else is going on,” said Holmes. “This project was designed to help empower them – not to provoke domestic discord – but to help women bring their mates in to be tested and to have them both agree to be monogamous and practice safe sex.”

Of the 121 recent graduates, 65 continued with various counseling, HIV/AIDS testing and referrals to other ACCESS health centers, Holmes said.

The Chicago Department of Public Health reported that for the period 2003-2004, black women accounted for 79 percent of all women testing positive for HIV. That’s 466 out of 593 Chicago women who tested positive during this period.

For more information about the SISTA program contact Katrina Holmes at 773/826-0369.