By Cierra Lewis
It’s easy to overlook the building as it blends into the city. The Camden Area of Health Education is not a huge towering building like the medical school or nearby universities. But even though it blends in, for some, this place is a beacon of hope.
The Camden Area of Health Education opened in 1987 when HIV/AIDS was an epidemic. The purpose at that time was to instill HIV/AIDS prevention due to seeing an alarming rate of infection in gay and bisexual men of color.
As the face of HIV/AIDS has changed, so has the purpose of AHEC. Today it is now a place where people can go to receive information on general health issues. AHEC still services the LGBTQ community today.
One of its most popular resources at AHEC is its Keeping It Safe (K.I.S) program for LGBTQ young men of color. The program started in 1991. Christian Hill attended the program as a teen in 2009 and is now the co-director.
“As a participant, it gave me a space to be comfortable with issues where other people were going through the same things,” said Hill.
He got his foot in the door when there was a job opening for peer educator and started working in 2012. Three years later he received a promotion. Jerome Pipes is his co-director.
The drop in center provides a safe and accepting space for young gay men of color to congregate and with other young men who can relate to them as well.
Programs like this are vital in Camden. Four years ago local Camden teen Waunye Wallace was murdered while walking with friends. Wallace was gay and it is believed that is why he was murdered. Friends of Wallace spoke about the difficulties of growing up gay and in Camden NJ. Not all experiences are like this, but for some this is the reality that they know.
The program not only offers these young men a safe place but educates them as well. In the past, K.I.S had workshops on practicing safe sex, condom usage, and HIV testing. The group also goes on field trips and has movie nights. Previous field trips include the gay pride parade and other drop-in centers.
For Hill, one thing that he is proud of is that the program has been running for long as it has.
“Some people did not want to take the chance, considered too much of a liability,” said Hill.
When it started people did not want to contribute, because they thought it was too risky and that it would cause controversy, due to being a resource for gay men.
Now thirty years later the doors are still open and people are still being helped.
The one lesson that Hill hopes these young men will learn is how to champion for themselves.
“I’m all about empowering the youth into becoming advocates for self,” said Hill.