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HIV is on the rise, especially in the South. This group is working to reduce the trend.

Hector Salgado is executive director of Alliance of AIDS Services – Carolina in Raleigh.
Hector Salgado is executive director of Alliance of AIDS Services – Carolina in Raleigh.

In the three years he’s been executive director of Alliance of AIDS Services — Carolina, Hector Salgado has nearly doubled the number of people the agency tests for the disease. Salgado, 36, talks about how the Raleigh-based organization is doing more with less funding and why HIV cases are on the rise again.

Q: HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, doesn't get as much media attention as it used to. How prevalent is it in our community?

A: There’s a misconception that HIV is gone or HIV is on the decline, but in the South it’s on the increase. Here in North Carolina we’ve had an increase every year for the last three years of new HIV infection rates. Some people think there’s a cure for HIV, but there’s not. It’s a chronic manageable disease, but it’s still something that has an impact on your life.

(Eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses are in the South, according to a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. North Carolina reported 1,414 new HIV cases in 2016, the CDC says.)

Q: What has led to the increasing number of cases?

A: It’s multi-faceted, but one of the main things is a lack of education. Even in schools where they teach safer sex practices, it’s usually around abstinence. Sometimes they teach safer sex, but when they do, they teach it in a heterosexual framework.

I’m originally from Chicago and I’ve worked prevention in four different countries as well, and it’s interesting to me to see the sharp contrast the way prevention is done here in the South versus Chicago, Los Angeles or New York.

Q: The agency’s goals are centered around testing, support and prevention. What are the biggest obstacles you’re facing?

A: Funding is always an issue. For example, the Alliance over the last three years has changed. From 2015, the year I came in, we were testing about 1,500 to 1,800 people a year and now we’re over 3,000. We’re doing the same amount of work with fewer resources. The state as a whole lost some of the funding that our network used to receive to provide testing.

Q: You also have a food pantry that’s open to the community; tell us about that.

A: Back in 2015, we were giving out 6 tons a year, servicing about 40 to 50 families a month, and now we’re giving out 30 tons of food a year, servicing over 250 families a month.

Q: How do you find a way to do more with less money?

A: We’ve become a lot more efficient at our events. For example, we have a quarterly drag bingo event. We used to have these events scattered out, but now we’re more consistently holding them at the Durham Armory. Each event used to bring in $2,000 to $3,000; now we’re bringing in closer to $10,000 for each event.

We also have the AIDS walk in October, the Red Ribbon Ride, the Red Ribbon Ball and Works of Heart. Each of these events we’ve restructured, and all have been bringing in 20 to 25 percent more revenue. I sleep a lot less, but the retooling of the agency has gone really well.

Q: What is the agency doing differently to test more people?

A: In years past, we’d sit in the office and wait for people to come in. Now our goal is to spend 70 percent of our staff time out in the community. When we’re out, one of the things we do is use a lot of geo-social outreach (apps that people use to meet up). We engage people in conversation and try to bring them in for testing using technology, which is what they do in a lot of other states.

Q: You’ve also held focus groups to help better serve the community; what have you learned?

A: We are seen as a risqué agency, if you will. We really listen to our clients. For example, we started asking clients what it was about our condom packets they weren’t liking ... and they said, "Your condoms are boring."

We took a different approach. We have an ice-cream cart that we bought for $25, and one of our staff fixed it and welded it back together. If we’re going down the street and kids come up, we give them ice cream, and if parents come up, we give them a prevention package with condoms, lubrication and information.

Q: How are you received in the community when you’re out there?

A: It’s a mixed bag. We get a lot of shock and awe. But when we’re targeting events like Out! Raleigh or other LGBT events, the marketing plan is different. For the most part people have been very receptive to the message because they get a laugh out of it and we’re still catering to their needs ... with an interaction and a conversation.

Q: What's most rewarding for you?

A: I love the work we do with the food pantry. We gutted the space in the back, put up shelves and bought shopping carts, and now the clients pick off the shelves what they want to eat. We diversified the foods that we’re getting by partnering with Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. Now they can get dairy, meats, fresh vegetables.

I grew up in a single-parent home having to go to food pantries, and I know it’s rough out there. Our pantry is open for people living with HIV and for people who identify as low income. We don’t ask for any income verification. I don’t think we’re going to sit in a place to judge anyone. We talk about non-judgmental care, and we try to put it so that it flows through all of our programs.

Know someone who should be Tar Heel of the Week? Send nominations to tarheel@newsobserver.com.

Hector Salgado — Tar Heel of the Week

Born: July 26, 1981, in Puerto Rico

Organization: Alliance of AIDS Services — Carolina, aas-c.org

Fun fact: Studied abroad in India, England and Thailand

Education: Bachelor's in political science from University of Chicago; master's in public service management from DePaul University

Upcoming fundraiser: Gospel Drag Show, June 15, sponsored by St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church

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