Hope and Help Center of Central Florida development director Russell Walker on the changing face of HIV/AIDS awareness

By : Billy Manes
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In February 2015, former Orlando GLBT Center vice president (and interim executive director) Russell Walker left one shifting Central Florida philanthropic agency for another. Walker assumed the helm at Hope and Help Center of Central Florida as events manager, but now finds himself in the position of community development director, one who is pushing for more outreach and greater transparency.

If this year’s Headdress Ball, Hope and Help’s signature fundraising event of plumage and responsibility, is anything to go by, Walker is succeeding. The Oct. 17 affair raised $325,000 for the HIV/AIDS support organization, all told, which might seem like a disappointment compared to the reported numbers from previous years, but is likely more a reflection of net profits versus gross profits. Along with the celebrity flourishes and black-tie beverage stains came a sense of responsibility, of community, that may have faded in the spotlights during the years prior. Walker is working to right the ship, he says, even after the $4 million agency lost a large sum of funding when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued its grants this summer.

These are changing times for the HIV community. On one hand, complacency seems to be the keyword; younger people unaware of the deadly scourge of AIDS in the ‘80s and the ‘90s are looking away from standard prophylactics and popping Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis pills (Truvada) to ensure their security. Meanwhile, organizations that support the local HIV population are fighting for funding – and relevancy – in a perpetually confusing wave of epidemiology and circumstance.

“There’s obviously a demographic of 13- to 24-year-olds [with HIV] that is exploding. Around 13, ‘on the rise’ I guess would be a better description of that demographic. But there’s no specific programming for that age group right now to offer them support,” Walker says. “So we’re going to try to really focus on those groups, and from that, we’ll then talk about whether we’ll be even more diverse. As of right now we’re just looking to have a youth program, and as that takes off, we’ll start doing a youth male-seeking-male (MSM) program, youth African-American and youth Hispanic populations and explore our options to start tackling them more specifically.”

We sat down with Walker to discuss his recent career hop and the challenges facing Florida in the new age of AIDS, especially as we recognize World AIDS Day on Dec. 1. “Early intervention” is crucial, he says, but so is “adherence” to prescriptions in a world of immediate gratification. Otherwise, we all lose.

Tell me what you came into when you walked into the doors from the Center and into Hope and Help.
I mean, my job was fairly portable as the events manager, which is one of the reasons I moved to Hope and Help, because it was more event-focused, which I felt was my strength, really. Seven months later, I was taking over community development, so the agency had already gone through a lot of changes with their board and things like that. And again, I don’t really know what happened with their board or what happened before that, and I don’t really ask, because I don’t really care about that. There’s no point in looking back to what we did before. I was more focused on really starting to get a grasp of what Headdress was and the monster it has become. Which I think I did fairly well. We lowered the budgets this year. We cut a lot of expenses, which we needed to do. And so, because of that, we brought in a higher return on investment.

Were there any big challenges that came up this year?
For me, my biggest challenge was making [Headdress] financially viable as an event. You know, making expenses lower, making the donations higher. Also, my biggest thing that was kind of self-imposed was using it to raise awareness, because I know people I had spoken to who knew of Hope and Help and knew of Headdress Ball, but didn’t know they worked together. I’m embarrassed how long they didn’t know. … They had no idea that it was for HIV or AIDS-care clients.

Was that a conscious decision to include the lineup on the stage to have people tell their individual stories?
Yes. I mean, that was in the production side of it. I don’t have a lot to do with it. You know, it was very much the production team who did it. But that was definitely something I was pushing for that had to be this link to awareness and why we were there.

But then television personalities showed up on stage.
[So You Think You Can Dance judge] Mary Murphy was great. She has been very active in the LGBT community. I was very surprised at how knowledgeable she was on the subject. She actually wanted to give money and wanted to push that kind of thing. But yeah we’re definitely consciously trying to increase that, because in previous years we have had one person give their testimonial. We were really trying to make something that wasn’t a downer on the night. That kind of thing really is the overall vibe of what we’re going for: knowledge of HIV.

What can Hope and Help do to further expand its brand or its resonance in the community?
I mean what we’re looking at is, you know, we are one of few agencies that are funded in the multiple counties: Osceola, Seminole, Orange and Brevard. So we are moving more into these communities, because, yes, it’s easier to talk about Orlando as a big city, but we need to work out what’s going to happen to these actual demographics. You know, it’s clearly metropolitan. I mean, it’s obviously not New York, but I think we’re fairly visible, so there’s that kind of security. People over in Daytona, they don’t have that quite as clear. So part of what we are looking at is how to implement prevention services so there will actually be testing.

Do you think that PrEP changes the mission of Hope and Help now in terms of preventative medicine?
No, I don’t think so. We tell people that it’s not necessarily something you should do, but it could be a great tool in prevention.

Moving forward, after all of the changes, what is the best thing that Hope and Help can do to re-establish itself in the community right now?
I think we need to be more focused. We have to be seen in the community. We have to be seen in the Pride parade as part of the community. We can’t just be in the bathroom and say we’re there. Should it be seen as a gay disease anymore? No. Especially now as we’re seen more kids coming out as gender fluid, there are all of these loose definitions. Kids are much more willing try things now.

If you’re going to try, you need to find more avenues for safety.
Yes, and even as we advocate PrEP, we still think that people have to use condoms. It only protects you from HIV; it doesn’t protect you from any other sexually transmitted diseases.

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