“A lot of people ‘find their calling,’” says Everett Holden. “My calling found me.”
Eighteen years ago, Everett landed a job as a health educator and HIV prevention case manager for a Latino youth program in East Los Angeles¬—and instantly knew he had found his life’s work. “It’s what I’m meant to do.”
Today, as a testing and linkage to care coordinator for Bridgemen—San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s community service group for gay and bisexual men—Everett helps connect newly HIV-diagnosed guys to the emotional support and medical care and services they need, and works with both HIV-positive and HIV-negative men to help them understand their evolving HIV prevention options and advocate for their own health and choices.
What is most exciting to him today, after nearly two decades in the field? PrEP. Short for pre-exposure prophylaxis, PrEP is a relatively new prevention strategy in which HIV-negative individuals take a daily pill—Truvada, a medication originally approved for HIV treatment¬—to help reduce their risk for infection. When taken daily as directed, PrEP is estimated to provide up to 99% protection against HIV.
To Everett, this evidence-based “biomedical” intervention is nothing short of revolutionary. “I’ve seen the course of the epidemic,” he muses. “I’ve seen first-hand how it has changed, and how it has impacted our culture. I’ve been on the front lines. So it’s especially exciting for me to see something new: Finally, as gay men, we have choices when it comes to protecting ourselves against HIV.”
As Everett explains, PrEP brings not only a new option for HIV prevention, but an urgent need for accurate, unbiased information on how to access it and use it effectively. “There is much more to it than taking a pill.” Much of his work today involves counseling gay and bi men about what it means to take PrEP: “the financial implications, the social implications, how to take it, the regular HIV testing and health monitoring visits involved, and what to expect in terms of talking to your doctor.”
(It’s a big change from his early career in HIV prevention education: “I started back in the days when we were putting condoms on bananas,” he laughs.)
Today, Everett’s coaching often focuses on how to talk to doctors about PrEP—a major hurdle, he says, for gay and bi men who don’t already have good relationships with their medical providers and generally steer clear of doctors’ offices. Everett helps guys advocate for themselves in the exam room, and he credits PrEP for helping many men start to engage in regular medical care. “It’s changing the culture around seeing the doctor and taking care of ourselves.”
Changing cultural norms and promoting health and self-care is also a key aspect of Bridgemen—and Everett’s passion for the program is clear. “Bridgemen is an awesome way for guys in their 30s and 40s to connect to one another through making a difference in their own communities, through service projects and social events,” he enthuses. “Behavioral science shows that when people feel connected—to themselves, to their community, to each other—they are more likely to make healthier decisions.”
Bridgemen members develop and organize service projects for the group. Recent projects have found members restoring critical salmon habitat at Muir Beach, serving holiday meals to LGBT seniors, and planting a rooftop garden at a residential care facility for people with disabling HIV/AIDS.
The group connects HIV-positive and HIV-negative men from all walks of life and from every corner of San Francisco. “Hence the name ‘Bridgemen,’” Everett explains. “We build bridges between different communities that have historically drawn a line in the sand.” HIV prevention and health messages are woven into social events, he notes—events that help bring out the best in guys who might be on the shy side: “We create an environment where it’s safe for everyone to be themselves.”
What has the community response been like in the 4 years since Bridgemen was launched? “It’s been amazing! We have about 750 men in the Bridgemen meet-up group. We’ve grown at a really fast rate.”
“That’s what keeps me going: seeing people engage,” Everett adds. Whether he’s counseling negative guys about their HIV prevention options or helping newly diagnosed men orient themselves to being HIV positive and access support and services, Everett Holden finds joy in seeing people learn, connect, and grow.
“I have the honor of being a witness to their process,” he says. “I love it.”
Curious about Bridgemen? Learn more about them at Bridgemen.org.
Are you glad we have heroes like Everett at work in the fight against HIV transmission ? Let him know how much you appreciate him in the comments below...
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