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McKeesport program preaches AIDS awareness

| Monday, July 1, 2013, 1:56 p.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Representatives of the Community Partners for HIV Prevention gather around the Rev. Yolanda Wright as she dedicates and blesses an HIV/AIDS awareness quilt made under the direction of Lois Brown.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Rainbow Temple Children of Praise mime group performs for attendees of Saturday's program for National HIV Testing Day, sponsored by the Community Partners for HIV Prevention.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
McKeesporters LaWanda Fletcher and Monique Peterson applaud and rejoice the faithful message of the Zion Baptist mime group.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Lueana Coward and her grandson Andrew display a bumper sticker intended to inspire potential killers to think twice before responding to their problems with violence. Coward calls Andrew, born a few months after the death of her second son, her teddy bear because she found comfort and hope in his life.

The Partnership for Minority HIV/AIDS Prevention reached out to McKeesport residents on Saturday for National HIV Testing Day, which prompted discussion of violence as another plague on community health.

The partnership's Mon Valley Chapter brought together community-based organizations such as First Step Recovery Homes, McKeesport Healthier Community PartnerSHIP, McKeesport Hospital Foundation, Zion Baptist Church, St. Paul AME Church, Allegheny County Health Department, Black Political Empowerment Program and NAACP McKeesport Unit.

The chapter has been working for six years to send a message that the international HIV/AIDS pandemic is not hopeless.

The group uses education, outreach and access to reproductive health care to encourage people to know their HIV status by getting tested and changing their lives. It provided free and confidential HIV testing Saturday at Zion Baptist Church, along with a prayer service and luncheon.

“If we (test) negative, we want to make sure we stay that way,” Dr. Doyin Desalu of the AIDS Coalition of Southwestern Pennsylvania said. “If we are positive, there are so many services to help.”

McKeesport Councilwoman V. Fawn Walker-Montgomery thanked community partners for sharing the facts.

“The numbers are growing in Allegheny County for children and youth affected by HIV and AIDS,” Walker-Montgomery said. “But if you are positive, it's not a death sentence anymore.”

With access to community health resources, Walker-Montgomery said, McKeesporters have information and care at their fingertips, but they need to pursue those resources. She encouraged the black community to be active in all aspects of city business, to know what is happening in local neighborhoods, churches and government.

“I'm no different than you. I just have a title,” the councilwoman said. “Everybody plays a role. Stop talking and step up.”

Each of Saturday's speakers – Kenneth L. Huston of the Huston Trust, Ocie Paige of the NAACP McKeesport Unit, George Spencer of MAD DADS and Lueana Coward of the RELIEF informal support group – said a whole community is needed to tackle any epidemic, whether it be related to health or general well-being.

Coward, whose organization comforts those who lose loved ones to violent crime, likened violence to a deadly disease. She lost three sons to gun violence in Duquesne and Pittsburgh.

She asked her 7-year-old grandson Andrew to repeat a question he asked at the age of 6: “When I grow up, will I get killed?”

It brought sighs and tears from the audience.

Paige, a Vietnam veteran, said children are growing up in a modern war zone. He said he feels just as frightened today as he did when he first was deployed.

“I'm a little more scared here in the states, because I don't know who my enemy is,” he said. “There are certain streets in McKeesport I don't want to ride down at night. I feel like I'm in combat again.”

Coward said many who hear of her book “Unexpected Events” often don't understand what she is trying to teach.

“You can miss the message by looking at the messenger. It's not about me. It's not about my sons,” she said. “I can't save mine, but if I can stop somebody else's child from picking up that gun or being on that corner … I need to put it out there.”

Coward and Walker-Montgomery said the community is so embedded with fear that many are not willing to stand up for change.

Paige said the city's ministers must come out from the four walls of their churches and reach the people who need them most.

He said few of the city's pastors are taking to the streets, and city programs reach only a small percentage of youth, many of whom already are on the right path.

He said there needs to be a wide-sweeping outreach.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956, or