By Shyla Stokes | Photography provided by OK AIDS Care Fund
There are 5,756 Oklahomans living with HIV/AIDS. In 2015 alone, 317 cases of HIV were newly diagnosed. A global epidemic, and yet, with advancements in treatment, many people remain uninformed on HIV/AIDS prevention, testing and advocacy. We sat down with the Executive Director of the OK Aids Care Fund, Cher Golding, to find out exactly what Oklahomans need to know about HIV/AIDS.
SPLURGE! Magazine: How did you get started with the OK AIDS Care Fund?
Cher Golding: Roughly 15 years ago I found out two people very close to me were HIV-positive. I remember how scared I was that I might lose them. But I also remember that they told me about resources and people who were there to help them. They live out of state and I often wondered if they would have received the same type of assistance if they lived in Oklahoma. I’ve spent my entire career in the nonprofit sector. When the executive director position came open at the Oklahoma AIDS Care Fund, one of the board members reached out to me. I interviewed with the organization, and it just felt like where I needed to be. The organization was at a crossroads after the death of its founder, Jackie Cooper. I knew it would be a challenge to fill his shoes, but it was a role I fully welcomed. Now I’m in a position to raise critical funding to grant to other nonprofits and programs to help others living with or affected by this disease. I hope one day we can report that there are no new infections, but until then the Red Tie Night volunteers, the Oklahoma AIDS Care Fund board and staff and I continue to work tirelessly for this cause.
S!: What kind of programs does the care fund offer?
Golding: My favorite program is our Emergency Assistance Program. The case managers we collaborate with share updates about the individuals we have helped and the lives we have impacted. It’s extremely rewarding to work for an organization that is there for those in need. Indirectly I can provide the type of help the people closest to me once needed.
S!: How does AIDS impact Oklahoma compared to other states? What’s the epidemic like in our state?
Golding: According to the CDC, southern states experience the greatest burden of HIV infection, illness and deaths of any U.S. region and lags far behind in providing quality HIV prevention and care to its citizens. Southern states account for an estimated 51 percent of all people living with an HIV diagnosis in the U.S. despite having only about one-third of the overall U.S. population. The CDC estimates that Oklahomans have a 1 in 168 chance of being diagnosed with HIV at some point in their lifetime. This is considered a moderate risk compared to the other southern states like Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas.
S!: What steps is the care fund currently taking as far as advocacy? Are you in schools?
Golding: The Oklahoma AIDS Care Fund recently received a grant from the Elton John AIDS Foundation to pilot an advocacy program. Our initial goal is to educate our elected officials about HIV and AIDS in Oklahoma and the importance of public funding, positive policy changes and legislation to prevent and/or treat this disease. We are also hosting the first HIV and AIDS Awareness Day at the Oklahoma State Capitol on Monday, April 10, 2017. We encourage all Oklahomans to join us and help raise the awareness about HIV/AIDS in Oklahoma.
S!: How is the care fund helping people gain access to care?
Golding: The Oklahoma AIDS Care Fund hosts an annual fundraiser, Red Tie Night. Proceeds from Red Tie Night are then granted to nonprofit organizations for programs that focus on the National HIV/AIDS Strategy as they apply to the needs of Oklahomans. Our grants program supports several counseling, testing and referral programs across the state. Testing is crucial to stopping the spread the HIV and to gaining access to treatment. The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested.
S!: Aside from Red Tie, are there any other benefits people can get involved in?
Golding: We are hosting an inaugural Oklahoma HIV/AIDS Symposium July 24-26, 2017 at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel. Jeanne White-Ginder will be our keynote for the symposium. Ms. White-Ginder has a profound effect on the community and her story should be shared. One week before Christmas in 1984, Jeanne White-Ginder was told that her son Ryan, a hemophiliac, had contracted AIDS from a tainted blood product. Although the doctors gave him only six months to live, Ryan’s outlook was positive, and he was determined to live a relatively normal life. Through this fight, Ryan became a reluctant international celebrity and Jeanne became a key player throughout the AIDS epidemic. Today, Jeanne serves on the advisory board of The AIDS Institute, and speaks across the country about her story as a mom, and seeks to educate teens and adolescents on the personal, family, and community issues related to HIV/AIDS. Registration for the symposium will open in early April. We will need volunteers to assist us that week.
S!: What other ways can people in the community help, give back and get involved with the care fund?
Golding: We encourage anyone who would like to support this cause to join our advocacy coalition and serve as a voice for the almost 6,000 Oklahomans living with HIV/AIDS. To join our advocacy coalition please call 405-348-6600.
In addition, the need for financial support is great. Red Tie Night used to be the largest single event fundraiser in our state, but sponsorships have declined in recent years while the need to support prevention and treatment programs along with emergency assistance has increased. We never want someone to have to choose between taking their medication and basic needs such as rent, utilities or food. Donations to the Oklahoma AIDS Care Fund will ensure that resources are available to help those in need and expand prevention and educational outreach services. Donations can be made online at okaidscarefund.com/donations.
S!: Is there anything else you’d like people to know?
Golding: If you’ve never had an HIV test, I strongly encourage you to get one. Anyone who practices risky behavior can contract HIV regardless of age, sex, race, income or sexual orientation. Free testing is available Monday-Friday between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. at Expressions Community Center located at 2245 NW 39th St. in Oklahoma City or call 2-1-1 to find the nearest free HIV test site near you.