Mr. Friendly educational program returns to Berrien County

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — The first-ever Mr. Friendly training seminar in Berrien County was held in Benton Harbor, focusing on reducing the stigma of HIV.

Mr. Friendly is a movement to help improve the quality of life for those living with HIV in “friendly ways.” This educational program from CARES – a Southwest Michigan HIV service agency – was developed to train staff and volunteers how to fight the HIV stigma with one-on-one conversations, host events to educate others about the latest in HIV treatments and to give referrals to local services for testing and medical care.

Health care professionals, OutCenter employees and residents attended a seminar last month hosted by a Benton Harbor to allow the community to get a better idea of how to raise HIV awareness.

Dave Watt, HIV prevention team leader at CARES and founder of Mr. Friendly, has been part of the CARES team for more than eight years.

The creation of Mr. Friendly came in 2008 when Watt gave a speech about how people sometimes use hurtful words like “clean” to refer to being HIV negative.

“We need to be sensitive to all people when messaging around HIV,” Watt said. “For example, if you are promoting testing for HIV, while pushing a condom in their hand, you might turn that person off and miss an opportunity to really connect with someone about stigma.”

Instead of being pushy, Watt said he simply offers a button or dog tag to start a one-on-one conversation in order to check in with people on how they are doing.

Watt, along with other CARES staffers, developed the “Team Friendly” workshop – like the one held in Benton Harbor in December.

The training was held at the home of a member of the Whirlpool Pride Network. Watt said they will complete Part 2 of the Team Friendly training this Sunday.

“We sought out for more trained volunteers to help expand our reach,” Watt said. “We worked with Whirlpool Pride, the company’s LGBT resource group, to expand our reach in Southwest Michigan.”

Berrien County has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the state, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Watt said their goal is to share uplifting messages such as “live stigma-free of HIV” or “love knows no status,” and in the process be there for anyone who feels they are misunderstood.

Upon starting Mr. Friendly, Watt said he discovered people are afraid to test for HIV for a variety of reasons.

“If someone contracts HIV in say Africa, then we typically feel sorry for them. If someone contracts HIV in the United States – unfortunately a common perception is – it’s your fault,” Watt said. “We all need gentle reminders to understand where people are coming from, to handle situations with compassion, to meet people where they are at.”

CARES services 11 counties in Michigan, with offices in Benton Harbor and Kalamazoo. Anyone with questions or wanting advice can contact the CARES Benton Harbor office at (269) 927-2437 or visit 185 E. Main St. Suite 604 in Benton Harbor.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 5, 2016)

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