VIDA/SIDA Launching Innovative New Programs

by Gary Barlow .
Friday Oct 1, 2010

Vida/SIDA, the grassroots community agency based in Humboldt Park, is working on three innovative new projects that promise to enhance HIV education and transform the West Side neighborhood into a safer space for LGBT youths.

The first of those programs, the MPowerment Project, launches later this fall. Funded by a grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the project is aimed at training a core group of young Latino men ages 18-24 to do peer outreach on HIV prevention and risk reduction.

"One of the biggest things about this program is that they get to actually develop the program," said Vida/SIDA's Eduardo Gonzalez. "They get to let the program work for them and what's going on in their lives, rather than someone else's idea of what works."

The core group, composed of 10 members, undergoes training to conduct formal outreach - going to social events to discuss safer sex, HIV risk reduction and distribute condoms - and to do informal outreach, where they discuss HIV and sex with friends. They'll also hold m-groups, peer-led meetings to discuss a wide range of related issues, including sex, relationships, family issues, homophobia and discrimination.

"We're going to talk about real issues they're facing," said Vida/SIDA's Dianna Manjarrez, adding that while the group is based in Humboldt Park, they're looking for people "from all over the city."

Gonzalez said they're taking applications for the core group, with incentives for people to get involved in the nine-month program.

"One of the biggest incentives is that they'll be given a monthly stipend of $200," Gonzalez said, adding that Vida/SIDA also seeks volunteers for the program. He said they are encouraging transgenders to get involved, too.

"We want to attract them so they feel this can be their safe space, too, and not feel excluded," Gonzalez said.

The MPowerment Project isn't the only way Vida/SIDA is reaching out to transgenders. The agency has sponsored the Paseo Boricua Pageant for transgenders for four years, a very successful event that's helped contestants become role models for the community, and is working with the Division Street Business Development Association to launch a business incubator initiative that would give transgenders a chance to develop their own small businesses.

"They are the most vulnerable part of our community," said Vida/SIDA Director Juan Calderon. "We can provide services for them, but what are the alternatives? Without them having alternatives to find jobs, we are just providing services."

The program would provide a space on Division Street where transgenders could open and grow their own small businesses for up to two years, then hopefully be successful enough to move to another space and let others come in and start the process for themselves.

"We're seeking to enhance their participation in the economic structure of the community and the city of Chicago," Calderon said.

And Vida/SIDA is working to launch Nuestro Hogar, which would be the first transitional shelter specifically for homeless LGBTQ youths in Chicago. Calderon said there are an estimated 2,000 homeless youths in Chicago at any given time, of which 42 percent identify as LGBTQ.

"It has become a crisis at both the local and national level," Calderon said. "We hope to finish the zoning process by February 2011."

The shelter would house 15 beds and is getting support from LISC/Chicago and from legislators in the area, Calderon said, including state Sens. William Delgado and Iris Martinez and state Reps. Toni Berrios and Cynthia Soto, all Chicago Democrats. Calderon said Vida/SIDA is also looking to raise $50,000 for the project from Chicago's LGBT community.

"This would be for the entire LGBT community and we are asking the LGBT community to be supportive financially," Calderon said.

All of the projects are part of Vida/SIDA's mission to address the community's issues in a comprehensive manner. Recognizing the connections between issues even led Calderon and others to Puerto Rico earlier this year to support the community there, which has faced a spate of horrific hate crimes.

"Vida/SIDA has been at the vanguard of addressing homophobia and transphobia," Calderon said. "People might go to Boystown to be at the nightclubs, but at the end of the day they have to come back to the community. ...We always continue to follow our model, which is to live and help to live."

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