Bambi Gaddist is so striking it’s hard not to stare.
At 5 feet 9½ inches tall and with tight blond waves lying against her skull, Gaddist never slips into a room. She makes an entrance.
“Who is that?” people whispered when she strode briskly into a long-ago meeting with legislators.
“The AIDS lady,” came the answer, in hushed tones.
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Gaddist, 53, is one of the state’s most visible and passionate warriors in the war against AIDS. With a focus on prevention, she pushes churches, lawmakers and businesses to get involved.
Because of her, the state for the first time gave money for HIV prevention in 2006, when it funded Project F.A.I.T.H., a church-based HIV education effort.
“I think sometimes she can overwhelm some of them with the force of her personality,” said Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, a preacher and lawmaker who has worked with Gaddist for more than a decade. “You can’t ignore her. In large part, that accounts for much of our success.”
She has set her organization, The S.C. HIV/AIDS Council, on a course to save young people from HIV, by going to bars, nightclubs and other spots — bringing information and, always, condoms.
Gaddist initially wanted to champion teen pregnancy. “I was going to be (the) next Faye Wattleton,,” another statuesque black woman who championed women’s reproductive rights as national director of Planned Parenthood.
But then she met DiAna DiAna, a hairdresser from Columbia so interested in educating people about HIV/AIDS that she had turned her Columbia beauty salon into an HIV-prevention workshop.
The two met in 1986 at a training session for health educators. “They sat me across from this woman who was saying all these funny little comments that I was thinking,” DiAna remembers. “Only she was saying them out loud.”
DiAna asked Gaddist to become vice president of the S.C. AIDS Education Network, which had its headquarters in DiAna’s salon and offered no salary, bad hours and no benefits.
Gaddist took the job.
The two began talking about HIV in schools, and traveled around the country, holding HIV-education parties that made the idea of using a condom fun.
In 1988, when Gaddist earned her doctorate in public health from USC, she became a consultant with the state Department of Education, helping administer the new Comprehensive Health Education Act.
As part of that job, she taught teachers about sexually transmitted diseases and ran a mobile classroom from which she sometimes gave condom-use demonstrations. But her frank approach drew protest: Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, for one, complained that Gaddist was corrupting the morals of minors.
After being called before the Legislature to explain herself, Gaddist was reassigned to the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.
In 1992, Gaddist started the S.C. HIV/AIDS Council from her Five Points home, holding meetings at her dining-room table. Later she moved the headquarters to a back-yard cottage, where she also decorated condoms with faux gems, to make jewelry that promoted HIV prevention.
Over the years, the council has won numerous grants from federal and state government and organizations such as the Ford Foundation. Still, the council lives from grant to grant, vulnerable to funding cuts.
But rather than dampen her enthusiasm, the challenge fires her up more. Gaddist led the S.C. HIV/AIDS Care Crisis Task Force formed in 2006 that persauded lawmakers to allocate more money toward a drug assistance program for people with HIV/AIDS.
Gaddist says she has noticed a small but positive shift in legislators’ attitudes over the years.
She also has learned to change her approach to lawmakers.
“I used to have this presumption that you should care because people are dying,” she said. Now she knows that isn’t enough, that often, lawmakers don’t fully understand the need for HIV/AIDS prevention until the disease touches their lives.
She doesn’t want to embarrass lawmakers into taking action. Instead, Gaddist wants to build relationships that inspire them to do more.
She also extends that approach to business and industry leaders, to show how investing in HIV prevention saves them money by keeping the workforce healthy.
It takes both public and private support to fight HIV/AIDS, she said — and the support must be consistent.
“If it’s temporary,” she says of HIV prevention, “we’ll never get to the point where everyone knows about it.”