Concerned about the rate of HIV and AIDS in the Austin community, the East and West Garfield Prevention Coalition recently held a training session as part of an effort to increase awareness about the deadly disease. The group is one of several working to get more people tested.

Dwight Woods, an Austin resident, 30, attended last month’s training at Advocate Bethany Hospital, hosted by the coalition of churches, social service providers, educators and community volunteers.

“When it comes to learning about HIV/AIDS, we all need to wake up and realize that it is detrimental to all of us,” Woods said. “The black communities are broken because of the spread of HIV and AIDS, and we don’t even realize how severe it is.”

Woods attended the free event to become more knowledgeable about the disease and learn what he can personally do to prevent it. In addition to getting his free HIV/AIDS test with rapid results, Woods said he thinks one issue in the black community is who takes the lead.

“It’s hard to follow black leaders in our community. We don’t know who they are anymore,” he said.

Black leaders in the community, Woods added, need to be more active in raising awareness. Others in the community say religious leaders should also step up. That’s why the coalition, a faith-based organization, is tackling the issue, says Latricia Walker, a facilitator for the group, which started last year.

The coalition’s aim is to work in East and West Garfield, North Lawndale and Austin, which report alarming rates of HIV/AIDS.

According to numbers released in 2008 by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, black Americans account for a disproportionate share of the HIV/AIDS cases. More than 55 percent of Chicagoans living with AIDS are black, while blacks make up about 36 percent of the city’s population.

“Black churches should be open to discussing HIV/AIDS,” Walker said. “Our goal is to bring the pastors together because they’re not united on this issue. Most black churches aren’t even providing HIV/AIDS awareness to their congregation. It is a topic that oftentimes is avoided because it brings up the issue of sexuality and homosexuality.”

Adedoyin Ogunsanya of Prevention Partnership, one of two trainers at the July 2 event, expressed concern for the black community and what needs to be done to battle the disease.

“People have to first be willing to talk about it,” she said. “The black church is where many people gravitate to get their messages about life. We all have to be held accountable, and the church has the power to make change.”

Out of 24 people who attended the training, 16 of them got tested. There were four local churches that were represented at the training. Results from the free test, done with a mouth swab, took just 20 minutes.

“The message isn’t getting out there,” said Erica Douglass, 39, a mother of eight.

Douglass was tested at the training, and afterward said she’s really concerned for youth in her community-she encourages her own children to get tested.

“There were not enough people here getting tested. A lot of people should have run to this event,” Douglass said.

Tom Hosia, one of the coalition’s three founders, believes if prevention doesn’t take hold now, the next generation of kids won’t be around. Hosia, an Austin resident, lost a brother to AIDS, and that his sibling received little support from the family. Hosia said blacks often turn their backs on those who have the disease, making them ashamed and embarrassed. The result: they’ll leave their communities.

“Black people are afraid to face HIV and AIDS because they’re afraid of the outcome and the reality,” Hosia said. “This comes from a long history of sexual brutality. However, if we continue to keep quiet about this, none of us will grow to see tomorrow.”

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