Pam Brantley: The Condom Lady takes it to the streets

10/14/2008 12:01 AM

12/07/2008 9:36 PM

Pam Brantley walks the back roads and alleys of Florence, an evangelist carrying the message of HIV prevention.

She strips off her jewelry, handbag and high heels, wearing instead a simple T-shirt and jeans.

“I’m trying to blend in with whatever they’re wearing out there on the street,” said Brantley, who works as an HIV educator for HopeHealth, an AIDS service organization based in Florence.

Her regular stops include a methadone clinic, a soup kitchen and a shelter for the homeless. People downtown call her The Condom Lady.

“Just dropping off some condoms from HopeHealth,” she’ll say. She also encourages people to get tested for HIV.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 25 percent of people with HIV/AIDS don’t know they are infected. That’s why Brantley and others like her care so much about getting people tested.

Sometimes, Brantley gets a warm greeting — from shopkeepers who post her fliers about free HIV testing, or people she meets on the streets and talks into being tested.

But other times, she encounters resistance from those too embarrassed to talk about sex, or those who feel insulted that she has come to them to talk about HIV/AIDS.

“I don’t feel as though it’s offensive,” she said. “I feel as though I’m trying to save your life. If you’ve never been tested, how do you know what you have?”

Sometimes she feels a little fearful about going into rough neighborhoods, past boarded-up houses and streets where drug addicts and prostitutes hang out. But she never lets it show.

“You just have to be aware of your surroundings,” she said. “I’m used to it. I’m out here.”

Brantley spreads the message in churches. She also goes to clubs and bars to teach about HIV, taking a male colleague with her for extra security.

She tells people about parking-lot parties at which HopeHealth offers free food and drink — and HIV testing.

“They’re not going to come unless you’re giving something,” Brantley said. “It’s kind of sad, because you want people to come and get their free HIV testing, period. It’s free and you need to know your status.”

She has a passion about reaching young black women who might be sleeping with HIV-positive men who don’t reveal their status.

She works with two programs, SISTA, for black women; and VOICES, teaching people how to negotiate condom use with their partners.

Honoring her for her work, the 2007 S.C. STD/HIV Conference named Brantley an “unsung hero.”

Some days, though, Brantley doesn’t feel like hitting the streets. But “the majority of the time, I’m ready to go.”

“My thing is, if I can teach you something, I’m hoping you can pass it along to someone else,” Brantley said. “Each one teach one.”

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