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The Catalyst

MUSC volunteer Sarah Bald fights HIV around the world

By J. Ryne Danielson

Sarah Bald, far left, and other EMPOWERR volunteers hold a community outreach event at the College of Charleston for National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, April 10. South Carolina leads the nation in heterosexual transmission rates and ranks eighth in new cases of HIV overall. Minority communities have been hit especially hard by the epidemic.

As a volunteer facilitator for MUSC’s EMPOWERR program, Sarah Bald has touched the lives of many teens throughout the Lowcountry. Soon, she’ll take what she’s learned and apply it globally as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana, Africa, working to stanch an HIV and AIDS pandemic that has threatened to cripple that country.

Her experience will translate well. The two regions bear an uncomfortable resemblance when it comes to sexually–transmitted infections. According to a United Nations report, more than a fifth of adults in the southern African nation are infected. Likewise, South Carolina now leads the United States in heterosexual transmission rates and ranks eighth in new cases overall. In South Carolina, African–American men and women suffer disproportionately from the disease, both in terms of infection rates and access to care. South Carolina ranks alongside Louisiana and Mississippi for the worst five–year survival rates in the country, with many cases of HIV going undiagnosed and untreated.

Bald believes programs like EMPOWERR — which stands for Ethnic Minority Preventative Outreach and Web–based Education for Risk Reduction — can change that. Founded by Carla Kmett Danielson, Ph.D., in 2008, through funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, EMPOWERR differs from traditional sex education and HIV–prevention initiatives by using near-peer volunteers like Bald to connect with teens on a more personal level.

Bald facilitates after-school HIV prevention and sex education classes at Daniel Jenkins Creative Learning Center, an alternative school in North Charleston.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Bald, along with other volunteers and health educators, facilitates an hour-long after–school program for girls at Daniel Jenkins Creative Learning Center in North Charleston. As an alternative school for students with behavioral issues or special educational requirements, Daniel Jenkins is just the type of environment where she is needed most. The school’s students, disproportionately African–American and poor, are at risk for behaviors such as abusing drugs or having unsafe sex that can lead to HIV transmission.

Over an eight–week program, Bald gets to know her girls well, developing relationships that go far beyond that of teacher and student. “They’re excited to be there, and we’re excited to be there with them. They don’t typically have after–school programs at Daniel Jenkins, so it’s a real treat for the girls to be involved in the group with us. You can tell they want to be there.”

Bald said a real treat for her is driving students home after the program ends each day — EMPOWERR provides transportation for students who would not be able to participate otherwise. “I really enjoy the car rides and getting to know everyone a little bit better. It’s a great time to just talk to the girls. It’s a lot more casual than the class, and we’re able to talk about life.”

EMPOWERR’s evidence–based curriculum, “Making Proud Choices,” focuses on HIV and other STI prevention, as well as the development of positive communication skills. “It emphasizes an abstinence-first approach, but also teaches safer–sex practices such as condom–use for teens and adolescents who choose to engage in sexual behavior,” Bald explained. “It’s a fantastic curriculum. It’s direct, gets them engaged in discussions, and dispels a lot of myths.”

Bald said that public policy has largely forgotten the populations most affected by diseases like HIV. Social stigma complicates prevention efforts, while the politics of race and poverty complicate access to care. Of the nine states with the highest rates of new HIV infections, none chose to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. That’s why she believes educational volunteer programs like EMPOWERR are so important.

The HIV epidemic extends far beyond South Carolina, however, and Bald is excited to for the chance to tackle this issue on another continent. “I couldn’t be more ecstatic,” she said. “I’ve always really wanted to work internationally.”

She’s already taken several opportunities to make a difference on a global level. “Following high school, I took a gap year and volunteered in East Africa, working with at–risk youth and HIV patients. My interest in HIV was really sparked during those three months.”

More recently, Bald studied abroad in Thailand, volunteering at a shelter for victims of human trafficking. “I loved it so much I stayed for the summer,” she said. “I was devastated I had to come home.”
It was in Thailand that Bald decided she wanted to dedicate her life to serving vulnerable populations, at home and abroad. Now she’s taking her next step dedicate her life to serving vulnerable populations, at home and abroad. Now she’s taking her next step in that journey. Beginning with intensive language and cultural training this fall, August will mark her start of a 27–month tour of service in Botswana. She credits the EMPOWERR program for paving the way for her work overseas.

“Without EMPOWERR, I don’t think that I would have this position with the Peace Corps,” she said. “EMPOWERR has really set me up for success. I’ve learned so much from my volunteer work: from knowledge of the basic epidemiology of HIV and AIDS to an understanding of public policy to the skills necessary to work with vulnerable populations.”

This knowledge and skillset is just as applicable in sub–Saharan Africa as it is in Charleston, South Carolina, she said. In fact, the regions share many similarities.

Bald believes community outreach events are important for raising awareness of and encouraging testing for HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections. Bald will take this lesson with her to Botswana in August.

Like South Carolina, Botswana is predominantly Christian, and, like Charleston, its economy is fueled by tourism. Likewise, the natural beauty and friendliness of the people in both locales can hide serious public health challenges. “The world is so big,” Bald said, “but we have the potential to be so connected with each other.”

She hopes to deepen those connections by collaborating with guidance counselors at schools in Botswana to teach life skills and promote positive youth development. Fostering positive identities, communication, decision–making, goal–setting and leadership skills, while promoting HIV prevention and gender education, will make it possible.

While in recent years, LGBT rights have made great strides in the United States and other Western countries, nontraditional couples have no legal recognition in Botswana, and same-sex relationships are prohibited by law. According to former Botswanan President Festus Mogae, the taboo against homosexuality has severely hindered the fight against HIV. Nonetheless, Bald remains hopeful that proper education can overcome these and other challenges.

“We’ve come so far in treating HIV, but education is still the key to prevention.” That’s something she learned from her time with EMPOWERR, she said.

“I’ve been so inspired by the individuals I’ve worked with at EMPOWERR. They’re scholars — people who are constantly researching and questioning the world we live in and finding solutions. They’ve taught me so much.”

April Borkman, EMPOWERR’s director of operations, said she was grateful for Bald’s contributions to the program. “We are going to miss Sarah very much. She is kind, generous and caring, and she displays a unique way of connecting with our teens. Nevertheless, we are very excited for her to have this opportunity with the Peace Corps. She is incredibly passionate about education and providing opportunities to others who might not have them otherwise. I have no doubt that she will have a huge impact while serving in Botswana.”

Carla Kmett Danielson, Ph.D., professor of Psychiatry in the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center and founding program director of EMPOWERR, echoed Borkman’s sentiments. “We are so grateful for and inspired by Sarah and the spirit of altruism she has shared with EMPOWERR over the last several months. Unsung heroes like Sarah are the cornerstone of our program — young people who dedicate their time, energy, and talents to helping make our community and the world, in Sarah’s case — a better place.”

Bald said she is honored to be teaching the things she’s learned to young people in Charleston and all over the world. “In second grade, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. I couldn’t read for the longest time. I think that’s what motivates me so much to help those who are discriminated against. I can’t stand it, because I was discriminated against and judged for who I was. Everyone is valuable, regardless of their HIV status, race, gender or anything else.”

In her struggle to overcome her learning disability, Bald said she came to know herself well. “That’s a luxury few get to enjoy. Many 40–, 50–, 60–year–olds don’t know their purpose in life, but I do. My purpose in life is to be the change I wish to see in the world.”

That mantra, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, is one Bald tries to live by.

May 13, 2016



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