Quechan counselor working to educate tribe about HIV
Christina Allen knows exactly how the rest of the Quechan Tribe would react if she was infected with AIDS.
She would be shunned.
"Right now, if I had HIV or AIDS, people would not want anything to do with me. We still have a stigma. A lot of people just don't tell anybody."
Allen knows that education is the only answer and that's what inspires her work as an HIV-AIDS counselor for the Quechan Tribe.
"The more we educate people the more that stigma will be broken. So we just try to promote prevention and intervention. We just do what we can."
The social isolation surrounding AIDS worries Allen, who said that a caring ear is often what many AIDS patients need most.
"People will say they have no one to talk to. Suicide is a big issue with this nationally and locally, too, because people need someone to talk to."
Also inspiring her diligence is fact that AIDS rates are skyrocketing among American Indian populations, a fact Allen says she's already seen reflected on the Quechan Reservation.
"AIDS is growing so rapidly in the Native American community. We're a small community, too. For us to have very many cases of AIDS at all has a big impact."
Allen stressed, however, that local support for the program is strong. "Our tribal council and tribal president, they are very supportive of what we're doing. Everyone is really supportive of the cause."
Although Allen says anecdotally that local AIDS cases are on the rise, she's mostly forced to guess without the benefit of concrete, recent statistics. She explained that since she does not provide AIDS testing, those numbers are not given to her and she often doesn't even knowingly come into contact with infected residents.
Statistics from the government involving the Quechan Tribe are outdated, too. "The newest statistics I have are from 2002," she said.
Also making AIDS cases harder to track is the fact that so many infected people simply leave the area. Allen said this is especially true once a person's AIDS symptoms become full blown, a time when those people
usually seek treatment in Phoenix or San Diego.
"Or a lot of people here just never tell anybody that they have AIDS," she said.
The Quechan Tribe created the HIV-AIDS program in 1997. The program is managed by the tribe's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Program.
In addition to AIDS Allen's program deals with related issues like substance abuse and sexually transmitted disease.
Allen's program gets its message out in the community by holding various public events like National Condom Day and World AIDS Day. This past March the Quechan Tribe joined communities around the country in observing the first Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
"We always just try to make it fun. When we have events the community really comes out, too. People want to know what's going on and they want to be educated."
The program also makes presentations at local schools, focusing on abstinence but educating young people about birth control, too. Condom distribution, however, is not allowed.
"The schools aren't very accepting, but the parents are. They send the kids over to us. We tell them to come here for condoms," Allen said. "The schools are very against (condom distribution). They say we're teaching the kids to have sex."
She stressed that students are hungry for much-needed information, all of which she believes will direct them toward healthier and more informed choices.
"The kids love it. They say 'Give me some condoms!' They always have questions and we really need to talk to them.
"Communication is key. They are very open and we just let them know that they are at risk every time they have sex and that they need to get tested."
Although the program does not provide testing, Allen and other workers will refer tribal members to the proper resources and will even take them there. Locally AIDS testing is provided by the Fort Yuma Indian Health Services Hospital, but Allen said tribal residents also seek help in Yuma and El Centro.
For training and resources, the Quechan Tribe turns mostly to intertribal councils.
"We educate each other and support each other," Allen said proudly.
An example of one of the program's more unique outreach measures is its visits with tribal elders. Allen and other workers will visit the tribe's senior nutrition program and share a quick talk - and condoms.
"They giggle at first and they think it's funny. They say 'I don't need this.' But I tell them 'You have grandchildren. You have nieces and n, they can teach others."
She also gains a great deal of optimism from the changes she's seeing the attitudes of young Quechan people. She said that it's while speaking in tribal classrooms that she actually sees some of the most open minds - and greatest compassion.
"Even the little ones accept it more than the older ones. All you have to do is go in there and teach them. I think people are finally beginning to understand."
Darin Fenger can be reached at
email@example.com or 539-6860.