The Red Project is preventing HIV, reducing risk and improving health

Would it surprise you to know there are an estimated 1,080 people living in Kent County with HIV/AIDS? Or that approximately 260 of these people -- nearly 25 percent -- don’t even know they’re infected?

In 2011, there were 42 new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in Kent County and so far in 2012, there have been 28 new cases as of July. Statewide, a little more than 19,000 people are now living with HIV/AIDS.

Of all the HIV/AIDS cases in Kent County, 44 percent are white males. Communities of color and traditionally marginalized segments of the population are disproportionately affected, too. African Americans make up 9 percent of the population here, yet they accounted for 34 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases in 2011.

What’s worse, if you’re an African American female, there’s a 25 percent greater chance of being infected than if you are a white female.

With cases of HIV/AIDS still rising, education and prevention are the keys to reversing this trend and one organization has a mission to do just that. The Grand Rapids Red Project is actively reaching out to the community to prevent the spread of HIV and they also provide support to those who have already been diagnosed.

Last year, the Red Project distributed 62,000 free condoms in Grand Rapids to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. As part of their outreach program, they also encourage everyone to get free Rapid HIV testing at the Kent County Health Department.

Advances in modern medicine allow many people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS to live longer, but these individuals face many challenges as well as discrimination. The Red Project provides a monthly support group called Positive Choices to help them cope.

Back in 1998, former Mayor John Logie started a task force on drug policy reform and one of the committee’s recommendations was to implement a clean needle exchange program.

The Red Project developed its Clean Works Risk Reduction program as a result and now supplies clean needles to intravenous drug users in an effort to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus that attacks the liver. Since the program’s inception in 2000, HIV/AIDS cases related to drug use went from 25 percent down to eight percent.

Drug overdoses are currently the leading cause of death for adults ages 21-65 in Kent County. Since 2008, the Red Project is also working to address this issue by providing training to prevent and respond to drug overdoses. More than 300 people have been trained so far and of that number, more than 90 reported back to say they were able to prevent an overdose with what they learned.

Steve Alsum, the Red Project’s executive director, says they get most of their new clients through word of mouth from current clients. Earlier this year, they also began going into the neighborhoods where their services are needed the most with a new mobile health unit.    

“We’re on a big push to make our service accessible to all people,” says Alsum. “We try to meet clients where they are.”

In addition to the Red Project’s fixed locations of their office at 343 Atlas Avenue and inside the Heartside Ministries building at 54 South Division Avenue, the mobile health unit has scheduled times and locations where it will be each week. Currently, they visit the intersections of Stocking Avenue and 5th Street, Madison Avenue and Hall Street and Burton Street and Division Avenue each week.

At all locations, the Red Project offers safer sex and safer shots supplies, Hepatitis C testing, drug overdose training, risk reduction counseling and referrals to other organizations for drug treatment, vaccinations and HIV/AIDS testing.

Each client is issued an anonymous card when they visit the Red Project. This card has basic identifying information that, if the card is lost, the person could share and easily be found in the database system. The Red Project keeps track of what services they provide to each person and what testing and training they’ve had.

Alsum says their reputation on the street is “pretty good.” People are often hesitant to come into the program at first, and that’s why the anonymity is important. Dignity and respect is important as well. The ultimate goal is to “provide people the knowledge and tools to stay healthy” regardless of what activities they engage in.

“We wouldn’t have the success that we do if we didn’t treat people like human beings,” says Alsum.

The organization can boast of a success story with one of its own employees. Brandon Hool was once a drug-using client of the Red Project who had always engaged with them and referred others to the agency. Then he disappeared for about six months.

“We had no idea where he was -- if he was clean, in jail or died of an overdose,” Alsum says.

One day he showed up, clean and drug-free from being in a rehabilitation facility, and wanted to volunteer. Eventually, he was hired by the nonprofit. Now he says working there reminds him daily how important it is to stay clean.  

Hool was lucky. Sometimes it can take months to get into one of two medically assisted rehabilitation facilities in West Michigan. There are less than 250 beds total at both places with a waiting list to get in at each. With roughly 3,000 people injecting illegal drugs in the area, the training and supplies that the Red Project provides are critical.

“When people need treatment, they really need it right now,” Alsum says.

The upcoming AIDS Walk+Run on October 13 is the organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year. (More information can be found below.) In addition to raising money, the event hopes to raise a greater awareness of the Red Project and HIV/AIDS in Kent County.

To get involved with the Red Project and help them continue their mission of prevention, education and support, here’s how:

-    Visit the Grand Rapids Red Project online to find out more about them.
-    Register to walk or run in the AIDS Walk+Run on October 13. Registration for this 5k run/walk starts at Rosa Parks Circle at 9:45 a.m. and participants are encouraged to raise money to support the mission of the Red Project.
-    Donate to the Red Project by clicking on the donate button on the home page.
-    Sign up to be a volunteer in the office or at one of the mobile clinics by contacting Steve.
-    Like them on Facebook.
-    Like the AIDS Walk+Run on Facebook.
-    Follow @RedProjectGR on Twitter.

Source: Steve Alsum, Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Red Project
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by the Grand Rapids Red Project.

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