A new initiative called PLUS+ Me helps people living with HIV in the Tampa Bay area become ambassadors in the effort to fight the stigma surrounding an HIV positive diagnosis, and to advocate for better services for Floridians living with HIV and AIDS.
With approximately 12,800 people living with HIV in the Tampa metro area as of 2017, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are among those currently listed as the highest risk counties for contracting HIV in the nation.
PLUS+ Me is a program under the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan (THAP) group that is funded by the Southern AIDS Coalition through the Gilead Compass Initiative, dedicated to reducing HIV stigma in the southern United States. THAP was founded in 1987 to support initiatives in entrepreneurship, health care, and housing in East Tampa. Its healthcare facet is called Synergy Health Centers.
As an extension of THAP, the PLUS+ Me program aims to equip participants with "real-world experience with advocacy and the skills to serve as leaders and trusted sources of information within their community,” says Charles Ware, Outreach Specialist for PLUS+ Me.
Ware, who says he's lived HIV positive for 13 years, explains that in addition to stigma erasure, the program emphasizes education in entrepreneurship and business development.
"We have experts in their fields coming in to train our participants -- for instance, lawyers who explain the difference between for-profits and nonprofits; how partnerships and LLCs work, and all the logistics they need to launch their own independent businesses. It's a great way for a person living with HIV to become self-sufficient and better able to contribute back into our community," Ware says.
Approximately 30 participants joined the PLUS+ Me summer initiative, attending weekly and bi-weekly classes to hone skills in entrepreneurial development, storytelling, and community relations. The first group of PLUS+ Me ambassadors will graduate in November.
Ware says the PLUS+ Me participants, in collaboration with family and loved ones, doctors, and community leaders in the greater Tampa area, are co-authoring a book that will offer insights into the lives of people living with and affected by HIV diagnoses.
Additionally, a master quiltmaker is currently working with PLUS+ Me participants to craft a Quilt of Resilience as a statement that an HIV/AIDS diagnosis is not a death sentence. The quilt is added to weekly as participants progress through the PLUS+ Me program and share their stories and insights about the experience of living with HIV.
"I'm ecstatic about PLUS+ Me because there's nothing like this in Florida, period," says Ware.
"It's all a way to create inclusiveness for a healthier, better-educated community. The lack of education is the reason why there's still a stigma, and it's why we haven't gotten ahead of challenges of living with HIV. We're the first agency to launch something, and we hope to engage a blueprint other agencies can adopt."
PLUS+ Me has partnered with Southern AIDS Coalition’s LEAD Academy to host a three-day, retreat-style interactive training workshop focused on advocacy, education, and leadership development. The workshop will take place this weekend, Sept. 27 - 29, with current PLUS+ ME members, and is open, by registration to the community.
Interested individuals may register at bit.ly/SACPM and choose ‘TPAN’.
For more information, visit the THAPgroup website, THAP on Facebook, and PLUS+ME on Facebook.