Women's Project Cares, Counsels

This AIDS research and education program gives at-risk women more than clinical advice. AIDS OUTREACH

SIX months ago Yvonne Calderon had nothing but freedom: She was out of prison with no place to go, nothing to do, no one to call. ``I had 15 cents in my pocket, and I was hungry,'' she recalls. An acquaintance told Ms. Calderon about the Bridgeport Women's Project, an AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) research and education program, which offers $15 to qualified women willing to be interviewed.

``I qualified because I was the partner of an intravenous drug user,'' Calderon recalls. What she didn't know was that she would leave the program with a job, new friends she could count on, and eventually the means to get her children back and live in a house - with a porch and backyard.

Calderon is now an outreach worker for the Women's Project. She goes into the neighborhoods she knows well - crack houses, prostitute houses, homeless habitats - to recruit at-risk women to come for counseling. Last month she was hired by the Bridgeport Health Department to do the same work for them.

Although not all women who respond leave the project with jobs, they can count on getting more than just clinical advice.

``Until you can take care of the basic needs of a woman - if a woman is homeless, living in an abandoned building, strung out on drugs, DCYS [Department of Child and Youth Services] has her babies - how can I educate her?'' says the deputy project director, Sandra Vining-Bethea.

The counselors at the Bridgeport project become friends to the women; they themselves have walked in the same shoes as the clients. ``We tell them our past lives,'' says Ms. Vining-Bethea. ``I'm an ex-prostitute. A drug abuser myself. I made it. I made it because there was ... someone who cared.''

Most women come back after the first visit. Since the doors opened in October 1988, more than 400 women from Bridgeport, (a town of 143,000 people located in Fairfield County, Conn. - the wealthiest county in America) have come in for counseling. About half are at risk because of drug abuse, says Vining-Bethea, the other half for sexual practices. But, she notes, the risks are interrelated: Prostitution is often the means to get money for drugs.

The Bridgeport project is one of 63 AIDS research sites funded by the United States National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). This project is run in conjunction with similar programs in Juarez, Mexico, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Abt Associates, a social science research group based in Cambridge, Mass., manages and sets up the sites. Promotional materials - posters, radio and television spots - are developed by Educational Development Consultants in Newton, Mass. (see related story).

According to NIDA Project Officer Gloria Weissman in Rockville, Md., the purpose of the program is to reach women who may be exposed to AIDS or the HIV virus. Through intervention - ``detox'' programs, job training, AIDS education, court assistance - the project works to alter the women's behavior. The money from NIDA is not used for drug treatment programs or for medication.

Bridgeport has one of the most successful programs, Ms. Weissman says. She attributes this to two factors: its location in a city with few other resources for at-risk women and the ``intensive effort'' of staff members themselves.

``They've gone the extra mile every time. I think that's what we'll find made the difference,'' says Weissman. The clients keep coming back, she says, because they feel comfortable there.

But one part of the program has diverged from its original course: the project's relationship with the Public Health Department. Of the 400 women who have come to the project, only 61 have gone to the Public Health Department for an AIDS test, says Florence Kiely, nursing supervisor at the Bridgeport Health Department's Communicable Disease Department. Originally, all patients were to be referred to the clinic for free tests; this has changed, says Ms. Keily, because the project has become more involved in social advocacy.

Mary Jameson (not her real name) is a Bridgeport client - a mother of three children - who is now in school and off drugs. ``Yeah, thank God I'm off it,'' she says, as she waits to meet with a counselor. She's been coming to the Bridgeport Women's Project for six months.

``My bag was sniffin'. And smokin' that crack,'' says Ms. Jameson. On a good day she could make $1,000 in an hour selling drugs to support herself, her children, and her own drug habit. ``It took me a while, y'know, but when you think about your kids,'' she says, it was enough to help her quit.

But it's not over yet. She shakes her head as she explains that her 15-year-old son has recently begun to sell drugs.

Positive results are sporadic and not easy to measure, says Bridgeport's project director, Elizabeth Good, noting that success for her is seeing the women come back. NIDA measures success in statistical terms, says Ms. Good: how many women are no longer engaging in at-risk practices. But six months - the original time designated for follow-up interviews - is not enough time for women to make real changes, she says.

But the place to start, says Good, is by truly loving each woman, by opening the project's doors to everyone. ``What we've discovered was that love, deep concentration, care, compassion, and true concern for their well-being does change their behavior.''

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