Monica Johnson, executive director of HEROES, likes acronyms. “We’re the acronym queens down here!” “Down here” is Columbia, in northeast Louisiana, and the acronyms we are talking about are not only the name of the nonprofit community development center, HEROES (Helping Everyone Receive Ongoing Effective Support), but the programs that provide diverse services to its clients.

Dynamic Relaxing Education About Me Symposium and Retreat, or DREAM, takes place every year at various conference centers throughout Louisiana, and gives participants a chance to re-energize, reassess goals, and recommit to living life in the driver’s seat. The retreat and symposium promote self-awareness and self-empowerment.

MBSU, which stands for Mind, Body and Soul University, is similarly life-affirming. The down-to-earth curriculum is geared to helping attendees discuss thoughts and feelings about issues relevant to living with HIV/AIDS. It also provides a safe space in which to learn new information and skills related to health and wellness and form new friendships.

TIME, Teens in Motivation Education, is a prevention education program for teens, and Keyah (not an acronym!) helps to educate, empower, and support African-American women on their life journeys through workshops that address everything from health issues to self-esteem. Help a Brother Out (HABO) is a mentorship and life skills-training program targeting at-risk males ages twelve to nineteen. Led by Triston Sheridan and Samuel Farmer, the program helps teens transition into adulthood by building up their skills sets in all areas of their lives. HEROES also has a companion program for girls called Help a Sista Out (HASO).

The summer art camp and performing arts groups seek to promote well being and self-esteem, teamwork, creativity, responsibility, and the importance of dedication and hard work, all essential components of maximizing one’s potential and living successfully. An aftershool program housed in a multipurpose youth center named the S.H.A.C.K. (Shaping, Helping, and Changing Kids) serves seventy youth.

HEROES’ holistic approach understands HIV/AIDS as part of a network of issues, from addressing poverty and job creation to literacy and life skills. HEROES seeks to strengthen not only the individual but also the community at large.

Founded in 1995 and incorporated now for fifteen years, the organization was started by Johnson to address a lack of services in the area for at-risk individuals and those living with HIV/AIDS. HIV-positive for twenty-eight years, Johnson knew firsthand how difficult it was to find access to healthcare and supportive services in the rural South, especially in underserved communities of her adopted state. According to the CDC 2008 HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report, Louisiana ranked fourth highest in AIDS case rates and eleventh in the number of AIDS cases diagnosed in 2008. Additionally, according to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals Office of Public Health HIV/AIDS Surveillance, seventy-six percent of newly diagnosed HIV cases and seventy-six percent of newly diagnosed AIDS cases were among African Americans in 2009.

Johnson and HEROES’ program coordinator, Tamela King, are two of the subjects of a recently completed feature-length documentary about HIV/AIDS in the rural South called Close to Home. The director followed Johnson and King as they prepared for and held a recent DREAM retreat and symposium. Close to Home follows several people as they fight against AIDS apathy and the lack of resources that exacerbates the pandemic in Southern communities.

“I know people can do what they want with their money, but the money is going overseas and we have a pandemic right here,” she says, dismayed but resilient. Johnson is determined not to let a dearth of resources slow HEROES down and is proud to lead a group of go-getters, facilitators and volunteers who deliver the programs but also develop grant applications and maintain the organization’s Web site in-house, among other tasks. As the nonprofit’s motto says: They are “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” Her long-term goal is sustainability as an organization that the community can rely on for its comprehensive needs.

HEROES reaches out to the general community through HIV/AIDS awareness workshops and conferences, and the nonprofit sponsors events on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and Juneteenth (June 19). One outreach event that HEROES recently launched is Red Dress Sunday in partnership with a local place of worship, Greater Free Gift Missionary Baptist Church, whose pastor, Bishop Rodney McFarland, is “very open-minded” and whose wellness ministry was proactive about inviting HEROES into its educational efforts. Taking place on the second Sunday in February, in time for Black History Month, the event encourages members of the congregation to dress in red to help draw attention to health disparities within Black communities, particularly those related to HIV/AIDS.

For the past six years, HEROES has also partnered with the church for World AIDS Day events in December. Says Johnson, “We go to the church and we always get up and share statistical information. The pastor’s sermon focuses around HIV and AIDS. And his sermons are televised the following week. It really gets out to the greater northeast Louisiana area, not just Monroe County.” Last year they raised money and were able to provide a healthy meal for the congregation. HEROES and the church also created a health fair, which was cosponsored by the Louisiana Minority Health Conference. HEROES would like to sign up five congregations for Red Dress Sunday in 2012.

The faith community’s response has been positive. “Some churches are more open-minded than others. A lot are more open-minded,” Johnson says. “Bishop McFarland is probably one of the most open-minded people. And if he says he is going to do something [he does]. We’ve had a couple of churches that have invited us in and they’ll let you get up and do your spiel, but Bishop McFarland makes sure [everything is planned in advance]—what we are going to do and how we are going to do it.”

One of HEROES’ biggest challenges is defusing HIV-related stigma. “I personally can’t imagine someone treating me different because of my status…but I have [a lot of ] clients who I know [face stigma]. I tell them, I try to make everything work for me, not against me. For me I tell people right up front because I want you off my island if that’s not where you want to be. So I use it as an icebreaker!”

Johnson continues: “But there is still a lot of stigma. HIV is still not socially acceptable here. I know people in the area who have died from HIV and, you know, they had the right last name, money, and they died from something else.”

HEROES would like to eventually expand its services to address the wider scope of health issues affecting African Americans. Before it does that, says Johnson, HEROES would like to “build a stronger foundation and build up its infrastructure,” notes Johnson, by moving into a building that could sustain more programs and more staff. “That is our big, big dream,” says Johnson, who adds that the nonprofit’s current office, located in a former night club called the Shack, “is nice but it’s not ideal.”

Owning a building would provide a source of income and relieve the constant pressure of finding grant money or holding fundraisers. “What we’re looking to do is become self-sustaining without the grant money,” says Johnson. “Where we live, people just don’t give to HIV/AIDS causes. They give but not to the HIV/AIDS causes. If we have a fundraiser and raise $1,000, that would be a successful fundraiser. You end spending more time and energy raising funds!”

HEROES’ objective to provide free-of-charge services to underserved communities has recently been thwarted by federal and state funding decisions. For example, HEROES’ teen pregnancy prevention funding was recently slashed. “They said our kids are not at risk. And if you saw the latest [stats]: Louisiana is forty-ninth in the nation for the unhealthiest kids,” says Johnson. “Where we live, the kids are not only unhealthy, but they have a very high risk for dropping out, a high rate of teen pregnancy, high rate of STDs, high in everything that we should be low in. Yet they cut the program.”

HEROES recently started a three-month funding drive called From the Heart, which is seeking donations to support agency operations that include office space, utilities, accounting, annual auditing, and community outreach. There’s no acronym involved, but it probably won’t take long for Monica Johnson and everyone at HEROES to figure out how to translate those words into dreams and actions.

For more information, log on to www.heroesla.org.

January 2012