A Territory Away…

By Rob Banaszak on August 26, 2010 in Puerto Rico Direct Grantmaking

by Stephanie Cruse, NAF Program Associate

I was able to travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico at the beginning of August to conduct site visits to a few NAF grantees through our direct prevention grantmaking portfolio there, as well as to attend a Johnson & Johnson grant ceremony with Kandy Ferree, NAF President and CEO. It was a fantastic opportunity to see our grantees’ work in action in addition to reading about their projects in our Washington office.

Carlo

Carlo

I spent Thursday visiting three grantees, each with very different prevention programs.  The first grantee was called PR Concra,(Puerto Rico Community Network for Clinical Research on AIDS). I met with Carlo, who is the peer educator for a program that we fund just outside of San Juan, near the University of Puerto Rico in an area called Rio Piedras. PR Concra is a center mainly for gay youth, and they provide HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment services, as well as medical/dental/mental health services.

PR Concra is the only organization on the island to provide programming for young gay men. The project Carlo works on focuses on conducting outreach to young gay men via social networks, primarily Facebook. After joining the Facebook group, young men are invited to go to PR Concra to take an HIV test or receive services.

My next site visit was to an organization called ASPIRA, and I met with the Executive Director, Adalexis Rios and the peer educator for the program we fund, Lizbeth Rivera. The NAF-funded program is an HIV prevention intervention called Solo para Chicas, and Lizbeth travels to four different rural sites around the island giving the intervention to adolescent girls.  Two of the sites are actually on separate, smaller islands off the Eastern coast of Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques. It’s hard to imagine, but these islands are even more remote and receive even less information and services than the island of Puerto Rico does.  In workshops, Lizbeth emphasizes self-esteem, trying to empower young women to feel comfortable with themselves and in their decision-making skills when it comes to their sexual health.

Iniciativa-Comunitaria's syringe exchange vending machine

The last visit was to Iniciativa Comunitaria, an organization that offers 13 programs in both prevention and direct care services.  NAF funds the Punto Fijo syringe exchange program through its Syringe Access Fund, and the syringe vending machine through our direct grantmaking program.  During this visit Kandy and I learned more about the vending machine which was introduced to the community in October 2009.  This project received quite a bit of international attention when it was implemented because it is the first of its kind in the Americas, so I was really excited to see it.  The justification for this project was that injection drug users (IDUs) couldn’t always make it to the syringe exchange room during business hours, so the vending machine is available 24/7 to those who have a token. They receive a packet from the machine which includes a clean syringe, needle, other necessary equipment and educational sheets on how to clean syringes/needles and HIV prevention.

I was so grateful to go on this trip because even though I had learned about the grantees’ projects here at NAF, being there and seeing the programs in action in the local context really opened my eyes.  There were a few main themes that I took away from my experiences in San Juan. The first is that all areas of Puerto Rico, but particularly rural areas outside of San Juan are in dire need of basic HIV/sexual health information. Secondly, stigma is a huge issue, and there is a lot of discrimination (sometimes violent) against gay or transgender individuals, as well as IDUs.  This results many times in lack of support systems, which push people even further into the margins, and can result in riskier behaviors, putting them at higher risk for HIV.

My last thought is that as “mainland” funders, we should be mindful of the context in which we make grants in Puerto Rico, and to really make an effort to understand how Puerto Rico’s territorial status affects relationships with the local and federal government, and with funders from the U.S. mainland.  I’ve had many conversations with our grantees, who express frustration that Puerto Rican community-based organizations often fall through the funding cracks, because they are considered internationally-based by many U.S. funders, but international funders consider them to be U.S.-based organizations.  Due to its unique status as a U.S. territory, Puerto Rican organizations are unfortunately not receiving adequate funding for the great need there.  I am proud that NAF has taken a leadership role and will be able to continue our funding in Puerto Rico and convince other potential stakeholders to invest in the many organizations that are doing a great amount of work with very few resources.

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