For Carol Harney, CEO of South Jersey AIDS Alliance, it is all about community partnership & changing hearts and minds. With a history of her own steeped in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, Harney has watched as education has grown and as a result, health within communities have changed. While struggling with stigma involving issues like syringe access remains a critical issue, Harney’s mission to give people the tools to protect themselves and live the healthiest life that they want to is unwavering. Carol Harney sat down to talk with us about her mission, her passion, and what is like receiving support from local businesses like Ocean Casino Resort, who proudly donated to South Jersey AIDS Alliance recently.
Michael Cook: What does South Jersey AIDS Alliance primarily do?
Carole Harney: We are an “AIDS Service Organization”. It is a community based organization with specific roots in the AIDS epidemic. That is where we started; we are an Atlantic City charity. We grew out of the needs for AIDS services back in the mid 1980’s & have been operational since 1985. Our original purpose was education & we grew into taking care of people that were HIV positive. Over the years, we branched out into work with high risk prevention to prevent future infections. That has moved us into a more infectious disease program.
While we are preventing HIV/AIDS, we are preventing all blood borne pathogens like hepatitis and other sexuality transmitted diseases. We work with the needy population, the newly infected is a big process for us. We do a great deal of HIV testing and want to connect people into the system, that is important for us. We get them connected to care, work through the trauma of being diagnosed as positive, and link them into services. Our goal with HIV people is to ensure that they are on meds; for prevention as well as for their personal health. We do anything people need from meds to doctors appointments to ensure that they are stabilized.
MC: So you do much more than simply medically help the HIV/AIDS community, correct?
CH: Absolutely. It’s not easy to find out you have a chronic illness like HIV if your home life is not stable. We do end up doing a lot of assistance with housing and assistance with utility assistance; basic life functions. We work to help people get stable so that they can focus on their health.
MC: So you have personally seen the AIDS epidemic through it’s infancy through where it is now, correct?
CH: In the twenty five years plus that I have been here, I have lived through the process. People were walking through the door and were dying. We are so grateful and lucky that times have changed with the disease and medication, but I am still surprised. For a newly positive person, AIDS may not be their first priority; it is still where they will sleep or how will they share their diagnosis with others? We do work like that, but branch into giving people tools to protect themselves, and have now branched into syringe access. We believe that this is a tool; when people are ready to make a change in their life we will be here to do so but until they are, we are still going to be there friend. There is no judgment coming through our door; we want to accept people into the healthiest lifestyle that they wish for themselves.
MC: Where are your locations?
CH: We have two offices in Atlantic City, but we are also in Cape May County and Rio Grande, as well as Vineland, Bridgeton, Camden, and have offices in three state prisons in Cumberland County. Atlantic City is our largest site, but we do versions of what we provide in Atlantic City in other locations.
MC: If you have been working with the HIV/AIDS community for twenty five years, it truly must be a passion to work with this community.
CH: Absolutely. We have lived through a very different time than we have today, which also gives us focus. The hope for the future and that we will be a part of one day, ending the epidemic.
MC: To see a generation come out of the initial AIDS epidemic with the knowledge of condom and safe sex practices, and now see the onset of PREP and some members of a new generation not being as careful as they could be, & then ending up with a different set of STI’s. It must be frustrating from a care perspective.
CH: It is. And it is frustrating that we are having some of those same conversations, as well as some of the judgmental issues. Our struggles recently with syringe access feels like the struggles in the 90’s with discrimination and stigma against people that need the help.
MC: So many years later and with all of the advances that have been made medically, why do you feel that the advances made medically don’t match up with the advances our society has made in terms of stigma and stereotypes about these communities?
CH: I think we have made some advances, but think that it also has a lot to do with when it hits home with your own family. That is what we saw with the AIDS epidemic in the beginning. There was discrimination, then you started knowing people that were impacted; it changed the perspective. Active drug users are still hiding their syringe use; there is still the stigma. People are not as forthcoming with how prevalent drug use is until someone overdoses. That is a big part of our focus; we are heavy proponents of getting Narcan into the right people’s hands. We work hard at that, write our grants and have gotten the State Department of Health to give us the tools needed and being there when people are ready to make change.
MC: Why do you think it is important like to have community support from organizations like Garden State Equality and businesses like Ocean Casino Resort?
CH: I think it comes back to visibility. We need to have these conversations more. We need to have the conversations more and with businesses that get involved, a public statement for supporting something like syringe access, is a game changer for us. While we absolutely need funds to exist and provide service, statements can be almost more valuable. Here in Atlantic City we are being told by our local leaders that no one wants us. Statements from businesses like Ocean Casino Resort make it feel more mutual, that we are all in this together as community members and for the progress of our community.
MC: Visibility only happens when people tell their stories. Shows like Pose brought people’s stories to the forefront, to an audience that may not have heard stories like this before. Would you agree?
CH: Absolutely; and I think that is how change happens. It doesn’t happen from a conversation between you and I. I could have the best intentions in the world, but it comes from moving hearts and minds and understanding that this affects real people and real lives.
MC: What made working with the South Jersey AIDS Alliance and the community you work with daily your life’s passion?
CH: I went to college for public health and worked in family planning & women’s health, moving to HIV/AIDS. I found even more of a home with that community because of the multi-cultural community. The experiences that I have had make my life so abundant. My everyday is talking to people on my board, lawyers, doctors, and then I could sit down with the person who is needing care. I don’t think I can express how that and those experiences have changed my life. Everyone is the same, has the same goals, and so often it is “them against us”. These people could be my neighbors or the people on the street; everyone wants the same thing, we just have a different way of getting there.