BTL photo: Andrew Potter

Every Step of the Way: Alfredo Smith Works to Change Lives of People With HIV/AIDS

By ANDREA POTEET

DETROIT -

Anyone working for a nonprofit organization that fights against AIDS with information, outreach and support is obviously driven by a desire to do good and help those in need.

But while that is also the case for Alfredo Smith, who has worked with AIDS Partnership Michigan for five years, he admits that what initially drew him to his first AIDS-related volunteer stint, with Ruth Ellis Center's Young Brothers United, was something a bit more practical.

"I actually got into it because of the free condoms," he says with a chuckle. "I went to a party one summer after I graduated high school...and they had free condoms. I was like 'oh this is cool,' then I found out they had discussion groups every Sunday, where guys in my demographic came together and talked about everything from politics to relationships and from there it kind of grew."

Though he came for the freebies, he stayed for the one-on-one connections he was making with the 13-to-24-year old men the program targeted.

"That's where my passion kind of grew because I saw HIV prevention on another scale," he said. "It wasn't all about safer sex this, use-a-condom that, it was more about these are people with real-life issues. At the end of the day I learned that a lot of youth aren't worried about protecting themselves, they are worried about where they are going to sleep at night."

From there, he was offered a job as the small groups coordinator with Michigan AIDS Partnership's REC Boyz program, an acronym for "Real Enough to Change." Beginning in 2007 until the program closed its doors this year, he helped guide a group of about 50 young men as they designed outreach programs to teach their demographic about safe sex.

"It was really their program," he said. "They made the decisions and I was kind of like the rails on the side of the road to make sure they don't go over the cliff."

After five years, the program was closed due to funding issues and Smith, 26, was brought on as an early intervention specialist at APM.

"When we had to close the doors down it was a real slap to the face for the community," Smith said. "These young men and women really relied on the services that the REC boys brought to the community so when it closed down it was like, 'well what do we do now?'"

He said though other empowerment groups met in the area, REC Boyz had provided a space for its members, who often didn't feel comfortable in other groups.

So he and other former REC Boyz took their group underground, meeting unofficially once a month to continue providing support to each other, discuss possible volunteer opportunities and continue outreach through APM, which helps to train the members to provide HIV testing.

"Even though the program isn't being funded anymore, we're still trying to keep the youth active and educated," he said.

He's juggling underground REC Boyz meetings with his class load at Wayne State University where he is pursuing a bachelor's in psychology (as a prerequisite to the master's he hopes to earn in social work) and his full-time job as an early intervention specialist at APM. He also volunteers with Affirmations, where he worked for three years, eventually becoming assistant supervisor at their Oakland County Substance Abuse Prevention Team.

At APM, he spends his time with clients who are newly diagnosed with HIV or have "fallen out of" medical care for the virus and need help addressing it. Once they are assigned to him, he talks them through the process and may also physically accompany them on any step of the way, from finding a doctor to going on a job interview.

"At the end of the day I know I've helped that person, I know I've educated someone, and I know I've made a new friend," Smith said. "That's what a lot of my clients are. They become like family."

And adding new members to his adjunct "family" is Smith's favorite part of his job.

"I get to interact with so many different types of people," Smith said. "I've always been interested in people who grew up differently than I did or thought differently than I did or had different values than I did."

Growing up for Smith was not without its challenges. Born in Detroit and raised by a single mother, he said he always felt different from the rest of his family.

"I grew up one of those smart cool kids or smart kids that try to be cool," he said. "I got good grades and tried to do my mom and grandmothers and family proud, but I always knew I was different than a lot of relatives around my age and I was always kind of treated different."

As he grew into a teenager he clashed with his stepfather and struggled with the religious dichotomies in his family.

"A lot of people in my family, at least at the time, had very traditional Christian values," he said. "It was kind of like 'you're sinning but don't look at me.' I always felt like I had two sides of the family; the super Christians and the super thugs and I was somewhere in the middle."

He sought refuge in dancing, dreaming of touring with Janet Jackson as a backup dancer.

"Dancing was in my body," he said. "At family events I was the little kid break dancing in the middle of the floor. But when it came time for me to do modern dancing and things that were a little more feminine, it wasn't really supported by my mom. She was more into 'hey, here's a football, go out and play with the boys.' I wanted to play pitty-pat with the girls."

He said even if his mother did approve of sending him to dance classes, she couldn't afford it. But if he had his way, he'd make sure more children get the chance to pursue their creative dreams.

As a teen in an entrepreneurship camp, he dreamed up a nonprofit dance school for inner-city youth and hopes one day to make it a reality.

"There's so much talent in the city and the talent's kind of wasted because no one's paying attention to it," Smith said. "No one's giving kids the tools they need to go further with their talent."

Until then, he's keeping up his efforts to improve things for LGBT youth and adults in the Detroit area. After taking part recently in a weeklong activist "boot camp" in Washington, D.C. sponsored by Campaign to End AIDS, in which he joined a group protesting for transgender rights outside of the city's mayor's office, he said he came back with tools he hopes to use when he volunteers with Campaign to End Aids upcoming Detroit chapter.

"The big thing I learned was that when you have a group full of people with different minds and different backgrounds, you can really make some things happen," he said.

The trip also brought on realizations about Detroit for Smith.

"It was kind of bittersweet relief to know that the issues I see everyday in my city are not just in my city," he said. "We get so much flack here in Detroit because of this reputation of being this violent or decayed city ... in an odd way it relieves me to know that the problems I'm seeing are not just here."

And as for his family problems, those got better after he came out to his family in 2008. He said he wrote his mother a long letter describing how she sometimes made him feel and he said their relationship has improved greatly. He said he feels more at home at family functions and his mother frequently tells him how proud she is of him and the work he's done.

"The older she got and the older I got she realized whoever I'm sleeping with at night, I'm still doing really good work and helping people and living a good life," he said. "Overall that's what makes her proud."

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