By the year 2000, 36 million individuals had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and 22 million of these individuals had died. We knew at that time that access to HIV testing, education, and condoms were our main weapons in the fight against HIV. We knew then, as we know now, that early detection and science-based education saved lives.
With the growing epidemic and its effects in the Roanoke Valley and throughout Southwest Virginia, Pam Meador was determined to do something. After two years of fighting for funding, Pam began working with jails, barbershops, bars, and operating out of the back of her car in parking lots to offer free HIV testing, linkage to care, free condoms, and risk reduction education to the Valleys high-risk populations. By 2003, Pam had secured the funding to open the Council of Community Services’ first Drop-In Center.
Fast-forward to today, and we have grown to serve all of Southwest Virginia with offices in Roanoke, Danville, and Marion. Our Centers provide free HIV and Hepatitis C testing, linkage to care, Ryan White support services for those living with HIV, Comprehensive Harm Reduction Services for those living with a substance use disorder, Status-Neutral services to those at high-risk for HIV, and CHARLI services for those who are HIV-positive coming out of incarceration.
Thanks to the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion in Virginia, lifesaving treatment has never been more accessible to those living with HIV. Still, our work has always been more than testing and linkage to care.
When you talk to Pam about the early days of the Drop-In Center, the conversation always turns to the stigma those living with HIV face. Pam has been a mother to those whose mothers had turned them away, a friend to those who were left feeling alone and isolated, a hug when all a person needed was to feel loved, and a shoulder to cry on when they needed someone to sit with them in a space of mourning or fear.
This compassion is at the heart of what Pam created 21 years ago. An HIV diagnosis has gone from what was for many a death sentence to what is now (for many) a one-day pill regiment or even a once-a-month shot. Prevention has gone from condom use and crossed fingers to preventatives like PrEP.
The Drop-In Center is the face of the fight against the HIV epidemic in Southwest Virginia, but we are also the face of the fight against the stigma of HIV.
We will never stop fighting against the HIV epidemic and the stigma of HIV, and we will always remind every person they are valued and are loved.
Adapted from Todd Rothrock’s speech at the World AIDS Day Prayer & Candlelight Service. Todd is the Drop-In Center Roanoke Manager, and Program Coordinator.