Through partnerships with other local organizations, Downer sees 2023 as a time of continued growth for Bros in Convo.

Sean Black: Can you talk about what your focus is for this year?

The cornerstone of our work is to provide education to the communities we serve, but also making sure that we are increasing access to programming and services to be their happiest and their healthiest. We look at how we can increase the number of individuals who know their status, and how we can continue to make knowing your status more accessible.

[We’ve expanded] our nontraditional hours for clients to come in and get tested for HIV, as well as for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. If they are in need of treatment, we have staff to connect them to care at no cost or low cost. We’re really pleased about [offering this range of services] this year because we know how important it is for individuals to know their status as soon as possible and to get linked to care.

We’re entering this year with an amazing partnership with the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, as well as with Miracle of Love and Divas in Dialogue. Once a month, individuals will be able to access their vaccinations for COVID-19, the flu, mpox, and hepatitis A and B, as well as the meningococcal vaccines, at our drop-in space, Stafford House. And as part of that outreach, individuals who come in and get vaccinated receive a grocery voucher. They are also able to receive HIV/STI testing, linkage to STI treatment and linkage to case management and care for those individuals.

Another exciting thing is that our organization provides harm reduction services. Through a partnership with Miracle of Love, we have a program coordinator who not only provides trauma-informed care to individuals but also screening, brief intervention and referrals to treatment. We also offer free hepatitis C screening. And through our partnership with Miracle of Love, as well as Community Health, hepatitis C treatment is available to program participants at no cost or low cost. The program coordinator works with individuals in the program to develop their own personalized harm reduction care plan. That includes linkage to some amazing mental and emotional health resources—like our partnership with the LGBT+ Center Orlando, where community members can see therapists, at no cost, who specifically have shared lived experience, gender identity and sexual orientation as them.

Did living with HIV bring you to your work?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I wanted individuals with a similar experience as mine to see me and feel empowered. But no, as my introduction to HIV work was through my education and professional experience. That’s how my introduction to this space happened.

Thank you for explaining this, as we are both people living with HIV. You also mentioned the importance of recognizing individual authenticity and realizing that we are more than our HIV status. Can you elaborate?

When [you are in public service] and people find out you’re living with HIV, it can feel like you’re on this hamster wheel, and the system is using your story over and over. But in my case, how I came to HIV work is not the whole breadth of my story. I want the focus to be less on my HIV status and more on how we can create and support organizations like The Bros in Convo Initiative that are vital to ending the HIV epidemic.