BEHIV seeks to spread the word about AIDS

Abbie Vansickle

Buried deep within the dark, wood-paneled depths of the First United Methodist Church of Evanston lies a place of hope.

It’s called BEHIV – Better Existence with HIV.

Located down a blue-painted hallway lined with posters and nutrition guides, the BEHIV office is a place of sanctuary for those living with HIV or AIDS, and a place of education and prevention for others.

Northwestern students know BEHIV as the new provider for the free, anonymous HIV testing the Searle Student Health Service gives each Tuesday night – but BEHIV has an even larger responsibility.

As the only comprehensive AIDS service on the North Shore, it has the formidable task of raising awareness of the growing number of HIV cases in a community where many feel the threat of HIV is as far away as Africa.

Mona Grimes, the BEHIV prevention director, believes the challenge is to raise AIDS awareness in a “conservative” community.

“In Evanston we are challenged because some of the reasons people give for coming show that they are not expecting to be positive,” Grimes said. “That’s the challenge (in) bringing this issue to the surface.”

But Evanston may soon have to face up to the AIDS issue. Evanston has the second-highest infection rate in the Chicago area, Grimes said.

“In Evanston reported AIDS cases have increased from 200 to 215 in the past year. If you multiply it by 10, that’s probably the number of people with AIDS (in Evanston),” Grimes said. Grimes added that residents associate AIDS with drug abusers and gays, but she cautioned that AIDS can affect all people, particularly young people, where incidence rates are increasing.

While BEHIV seeks to inform the Evanston community, Director of Student Health Mark Gardner thinks NU students already are aware of HIV. Gardner said students have been going to Searle on Tuesday nights for the free and anonymous testing and that “there is a high degree of awareness on campus.”

While Grimes agreed that students have been using the testing, she questioned the knowledge of NU students about the disease and prevention.

“My first time testing at Northwestern, there were a lot of questions,” Grimes said. “They weren’t sure of a lot of things about HIV. People seemed to feel that they weren’t a high-risk population, even when they were coming in to be tested for HIV.”

But Grimes said the assumption that NU students are all at a very low risk for HIV is just plain ignorant.

“I think if you have any knowledge of AIDS at all – I don’t think you could make that assumption,” Grimes said. “If you can say that everyone at Northwestern is abstinent, not using drugs or practicing at-risk behaviors, then you can say no one is at risk.”

And NU students are not alone in thinking that AIDS does not affect them. The American population feels that AIDS is no longer a big issue, Grimes said.

Because of the development of medication to slow the virus, people with AIDS are living longer, and with the decreasing mortality rate has come decreasing government support, she said.

But Grimes feels that the time is crucial in the AIDS fight because numbers worldwide are beginning to rise again.

“It’s like a ticking time bomb,” she said.

It is this feeling of urgency that has led BEHIV to continue its programming despite funding shortages.

“I think we have to get people talking,” Grimes said. “We have to go out and spread the word as much as we can.”

And BEHIV has been doing just that. From mail campaigns to free and anonymous testing at area soup kitchens to educational outreach programs at schools and civic groups, BEHIV has launched a crusade against AIDS.

And the volunteer pool for these programs has included several NU students. This quarter NU sororities and fraternities helped BEHIV assemble condom kits.

“During Greek Week we had a community service day, ” said Jennie Ellis, president of Delta Delta Delta. “We had two locations where we made condom kits.”

In addition to its volunteer programs, BEHIV also is committed to those living with HIV and AIDS but is struggling to find funding and volunteer staff.

“People need to ask themselves ‘What have I done in my community?'” Grimes said. “We’re trying to reach everyone, but there’s not enough of us. We would also like to be considered for something like Dance Marathon. We never turn down an opportunity for funding.”

Grimes also hinted that the shortage of funds could give the NU testing program a short life.

“We’re don’t know how we’re going to continue the free and anonymous testing,” Grimes said. “We’ll just have to see what the county and other sources give us. We’re trying to provide it because we know it’s a necessity. I’m staying optimistic.” nyou