Springfield has one of the state’s highest rates of HIV and AIDS, according to statistics released by the state in 2011. That’s one reason a cross-country tour by a national AIDS advocacy group stopped in the city Friday to offer free HIV testing and free condoms.
On Main Street in Springfield’s North End, volunteers offer handfuls of condoms to pedestrians and drivers. Several onlookers stop to take pictures of an eighteen wheel truck parked nearby, covered in photos of smiling people holding condoms. Next to the truck is a van, where people can get free HIV tests.
This is the “Condom Nation” tour, a project of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Health Care Foundation. Marco Benjamin is the project’s manager.
“We thought that there was such a big need still to supply free condoms to communities that are under serviced and also agencies that are currently doing the work on the ground in the communities. Our goal this year is to give away 50 million free condoms in the United States.”
Benjamin says most community members appreciate the tour. But many Springfield residents are still resistant to getting HIV tests, regardless of cost, according to Neida Rodriguez. She runs an HIV program at the Gandara Center in Springfield, which participated in the tour.
“I think there’s a lot of stigma out here, and people think if you go and get tested, and other people see you, they automatically assume that you’re HIV-positive, and that’s not the case.”
Rodriguez says she hopes actively reaching out to the community will help break down some of that resistance. The Condom Nation tour stopped in Boston earlier this week and now goes on to Newark, New Jersey and Columbus, Ohio.