BVU grad helps to change attitudes on HIV victims

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"AIDS," said Darren Whitfield, who graduated from Buena Vista University with a degree in social work, "is an equal-opportunity illness."

There are many myths about who HIV touches. It's not stereotypical, he says. "Anyone can contract this illness; everyone runs the risk. It can strike anyone at any time."

Whitfield is "passionate" about HIV and educating people on those myths and prevention. As a senior at BVU, he had the opportunity to complete his required Senior Field Internship at the AIDS Project of Central Iowa in Des Moines. The experience was life-changing. After graduating from BVU in 2007, he went on to earn his Masters Degree in social work at the University of Denver. He kept in contact with those he had worked with at The Project and they were able to bring him back where he now works full-time.

He is helping make a difference as more and more people come to know the truth about AIDS.

"There is such a stigma, especially in the rural communities. Our job is educating - letting people know how HIV is transmitted and who is impacted by the illness."

Whitfield's position - program coordinator - allows him to coordinate all of the agency's prevention and care services; manage its housing program and the Drug Assistance Program; do evaluations, training, quality assurance and writing grant applications.

"No two days are the same," he said. "I like it. This is my first job and it is a learning experience. It's great to be sharing this information. We're providing services and prevention. I enjoy being a part of this unified group of people. We still have a long way to go."

The ages of people The Project sees runs the gambit. "We see every age and race. There is such a misconception that this illness only touches certain groups of people. You don't have to be young or gay or using drugs."

The education materials used at The Project are based on approved curriculum and include testimonies on real people who have been living with HIV. The audience reached is large - some come to them while members of The Project go out into the community. They reach parents, high school and college-age students and those attending medical schools.

The agency has a long history of serving people living with HIV. In 1987, an involved group calling themselves the Central Iowa AIDS Project voluntarily began the task of addressing HIV incidence in and around Des Moines. In 1990, the Mayor's Task Force on AIDS recommended this coalition form an independent agency. What is now known as the AIDS Project of Central Iowa (The Project) opened its doors in December 1991, becoming a non-profit organization in 1993. The Project has grown and is now the largest HIV/AIDS service and prevention agency in the state of Iowa.

Whitfield is thrilled also with the experience he had at BVU. A St. Louis, Mo. native, received numerous invitations to visit the campus while he was still in high school. He never thought he would attend a small college in a small town but once he took them up on a visit, he knew it was where he wanted to be.

"It was a great decision. I had never lived outside of the urban area and it was a great experience. I enjoyed all four years and was quite involved. Some of my best friends are from BVU," he said. "I feel very fortunate."

As a BVU student, Darren served on the Student Activities Board for four years, including one as president; was editor of The Tack, the student newspaper; chair of Time Out; assistant to the director of the Academic and Cultural Events Series (ACES); a member of Student Senate and was a member of the student panel of the William W. Siebens American Heritage Lecture series for two consecutive years.

Whitfield began his college career majoring in psychology but was swayed into social work by his instructor Joyce Bettin, who told him he was "a great fit for social work."

"I am very grateful that I switched my major and if it had not been for the internship set up for me at BV, I wouldn't be where I am today."

He praised the professors who take the time to get to know their students.

"People are so lucky. In other schools, that's not a guarantee. That really is a gift students don't get everywhere."

Whitfield would like to eventually complete his master's and PhD degrees in public health and teach social work from the perspective of a social reformer.

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