George Kerr is Executive Director of the START at Westminster program in Washington, D.C., providing HIV/AIDS advocacy, education, testing, counseling, and referral services.
In a city with an admirable and diverse field of AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs), START is unique because of its affiliation with Westminster Presbyterian Church. Westminster’s mission “is to be an accepting, caring, risk-taking Body of Christ open to God’s message in people and places too often rejected and ignored.” This mission is expressed in harm-reduction principles that include recognizing that behaviors which can lead to the contraction of HIV (drug use and high-risk sexual behavior) are part of the community; understanding that the realities of inequality, racism, past trauma, and gender and sexual orientation biases affect a person’s ability to effectively deal with drug use and other harmful practices; and that people who engage in such behaviors can be the primary agents for reducing harm to themselves and others. Thus, Westminster seeks to empower individuals to improve the conditions of their lives and communities.
START’s work of empowerment is supported by Westminster Presbyterian Church., which places great emphasis on personal development and helping individuals live a healthy and fulfilling life. Both pride themselves on having carved out a unique niche for their community-based prevention programs with the understanding that everyone is a child of God.
Among youth, 60% with HIV do not know they are infected. In D.C., START’S outreach has grown tremendously, in part because of city support for a mobile unit that performs AIDS testing on 1600 people a year.
Thankfully, great strides have been made toward ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States. New diagnostic, preventative, and treatment tools have helped to reduce the potential for these illnesses to spread. They have also helped people to live longer and healthier lives. Such advancements would not have been possible without the leadership of people like Kerr and others who are living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.
There is much still to be done. More than 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV infection, and almost 1 in 5 (18.1%) are unaware of their infection. Among youth, 60% with HIV do not know they are infected.
In D.C., START’ outreach has grown tremendously, in part because of city support for a mobile unit that performs AIDS testing on 1600 people a year. This is an example of what is most needed to put an end to HIV/AIDS: local networks of people who serve as mentors and as advocates.
Local networks help increase health literacy, and those living with the disease are inspired to become teachers who dispel the negative image often attached to persons with HIV/AIDS. Increasingly, they feel more comfortable disclosing their HIV-positive status, and supported enough to stand up for the medical treatment they need and deserve.
The passage of the Affordable Care Act and the adoption of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy in 2010 were important milestones in changing the course of this epidemic. Ensuring that adequate federal funding through the Ryan White Program  is maintained during the transition to a reformed health system will continue to be a challenge over the next several years.
This mission is expressed in harm-reduction principles that include recognizing that behaviors which can lead to the contraction of HIV are part of the community.
Support for syringe exchange programs is needed in the face of threatened spending cuts. Health advocates have long argued that needle exchange does prevent the spread of disease. Studies not only support that assertion but also show that needle exchange programs do not increase illicit drug use.
Another concern for Kerr and the Presbyterian AIDS Network is the direct and indirect criminalization of persons living with HIV/AIDS.3 Kerr realizes there is a long road ahead, but there are too many people whose lives are at stake for him to give up now. Every day, Kerr hears tough stories. His care for these people keeps him going. They are the reason Kerr continues to wake up every morning and move forward with this work. He knows many whose lives have benefited from the services START provides and he believes that the organization is an example for what is possible in communities throughout the world.
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About the Author:
George Kerr III believes in an HIV/AIDS free generation. It’s his dream. Like many, Kerr realizes it won’t be easy to achieve this, but he also knows not everything comes easily in life. For him, the degree of challenge is not a good reason to give up hope.
Kerr has been involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS for nearly two decades. Currently, he is the Co-Moderator of the Presbyterian AIDS Network (PAN), a network of the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA). PHEWA is a ministry of the compassion, Peace and justice ministry of the Presbyterian mission agency. PHEWA works through networks of grassroots ministries at the intersection of community health and justice.
Kerr is also the Executive Director of “START at Westminster”, a Washington D.C., faith-based harm reduction, prevention, and awareness initiative. START’s acronym reflects the core elements of the harm reduction philosophy: Syringe, Treatment, Advocacy, Resources, and Training. The mission of START is to reduce the transmissions of HIV, hepatitis, and other blood-borne diseases by empowering those at risk of infection with the tools, resources, and referrals they need to take charge of their health.
2 The Ryan White Program works with cities, states, and local community-based organization to provide HIV-related services for those who do not have sufficient health care coverage or financial resources for coping with HIV disease.