Brian Woodman Jr./CTLatinoNews.com
Charles Capers is quite emotional about his involvement with a support group focused on Latinos and others that are infected with AIDS or HIV. Capers, a 64-year-old peer support specialist with the group, has a personal stake in the matter — he has been infected with AIDS for 34 years, he said, and has made it a point of pride to go on living rather than resign himself to the old perception that the illness is an automatic death sentence.
“My attitude is that ‘I am going to come at you’ and you are going to listen,” he said. “People need to talk about it.”
The non-profit organization Latino Community Services operates the group, which is called the psychosocial group and is one of many services offered by the agency. The group meets every Tuesday from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. in Hartford at the organization’s main office, which is located at 184 Wethersfield Avenue.
“People need someone to talk to,” Capers said, noting there were often common denominators such as the lack of a father figure — something he said that he understands well. “The group leaves you with no excuse not to talk.”
According to the Center for Disease Control’s website at www.cdc.gov, Hispanics and Latinos in the United States during 2010 were more than three times as likely as whites to become infected with AIDS or HIV.
There are currently about 19 participants in the group, which has been meeting for eight months.
Capers estimates that 76 percent of the group already have access to all the required services.
“A lot of people that come to my group have family members that do not know how they are doing because the people joining us are worried about the stigma,” said Melanie Cruz, who is a counselor for the group. “A lot of our clients are scared. They are afraid that they will never have a normal relationship.”
Capers was more blunt.
“I ask them what they are afraid of,” said Capers. “They are petrified. We have to let teachers and counselors know that these people are scared. Don’t disrespect them.”
Cruz, who is also trained in counseling victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, added that the organization offers other services such as medical case management and transportation assistance to appointments.
Other programs includes a peer support group that provides mentors and focuses on Latinos and African Americans from ages 18 through 29. The organization also operates a food pantry that is open to the entire community, although clients gain initial access, and provides free condoms.
Cruz said that in Connecticut, more than 70 percent of those affected with AIDS or HIV are between ages 30 and 49. She added it was spreading fast in the African American and gay community among males between ages 13 and 28.
According to the CDC, 87 percent of the Latinos or Hispanics that were infected were men and 79 percent of these were infected through sexual contact with other men. About 67 percent of this group were under 35.
Cruz said Angel Medina is a coordinator for the organization; it prioritizes prevention and education as well as helping those already infected. It also works with other organizations such as the Wheeler Clinic and Project Step — a sister organization located on Main Street that provides group services to substance abusers, people infected with HIV and those at risk.
“It is all free,” said Cruz, who emphasized that the organization’s services were open to anyone.
When a group of social workers and community members in Hartford first established the organization in 1986, she said, the founders intended it as a response to the growth of AIDS in the Latino community. The organization has tried to reach a variety of groups, such as gay males considered at risk of infection, as it has expanded.
The organization’s staff includes early intervention specialists — people trained in seeking out and providing services to HIV-positive community members and providing preventative education.
Medina said staff persons have traveled to homeless shelters and schools to conduct testing and educate people. For example, people from the organization teach infected clients about what will interact negatively with medications taken for their condition.
They also organize fund-raising events such as a Vogue Night on July 28 and a forthcoming latex fashion show. More information on the events is available on the organization’s Facebook page.
In conclusion, Capers said that quality of life was as important as mere survival.
“My people are going to live,” he added. “Let’s not talk about survival — let’s talk about living.”
Latino Community Services can be reached at (860) 296-6400. The fax is (860) 728-3782. The website is www.lcs-ct.org.