University News

Student-founded nonprofit tackles HIV problems

By
Senior Staff Writer

Correction Appended

When Gavin Myers ’06 MPH ’11 entered the masters in public health program in 2009, he was simply interested in HIV as a research topic. But as he worked with faculty members on research, he realized that he wanted to do hands-on community service that would have an immediate impact. In 2009, Myers joined forces with Krissy Diamond Rovner ’07 MPH ’11 to create PL-AIDS, a nonprofit that spreads awareness about HIV and AIDS.

The pair combined Myers’ passion and Rovner’s business acumen to start the organization, which was originally called the Brown Global HELP Initiative. The group’s mission is to raise HIV awareness, specifically about prevention methods, by reaching out to at-risk communities in Providence and southern New England, Myers said. The group also consults with doctors around the world on issues of biomedical prevention. 

“Research has an impact as well, but on a longer term,” Myers said. 

One of the group’s recent achievements is a post-exposure hotline that will be introduced March 1. The hotline will connect callers with an HIV specialist, Philip Chan, who will listen to the caller’s situation and determine whether or not they are at risk of HIV and if they should receive prophylaxis, a “morning-after pill for HIV.” The hotline will provide a more intimate and comfortable avenue for people who might be reluctant to talk to a doctor in an emergency room, Myers said. 

Members of the group have also visited hospitals to see whether they offer the prophylaxis pill and have spoken with doctors and professionals with conflicting opinions on its use. The group aims to”show that (the pill) is an option but not an escape for reckless behavior,” said Andy Chang ’13, a member of the organization.

The group recently received 501(c)3 charity status, allowing people who donate to the group to receive a tax deduction. It also allows the group to be tax-exempt and apply for a wide variety of grants. 

PL-AIDS focuses largely on raising awareness through media. Members distribute pamphlets about the prophylaxis pill in clubs, bars and schools, and the group has recently developed an interest in more interactive media, such as film and documentaries. Myers founded the production company, Grauman Films, a for-profit corporate entity that helps raise funds for his documentary projects, as some filmmakers can be reluctant to work with non-profit organizations, he said.

The company is currently in the process of producing two documentaries. One documentary about post-exposure, which examines issues across the United States and includes interviews with HIV experts, has been in production for about a year. Myers expects a 2013 release date. 

The second documentary follows the male sex industry in Providence and will be released later this year. “We’ve been receiving a lot of positive press in the community for the film,” Myers said.

Both Rovner and Myers said their main difficulty has been a lack of a receptive audience for their message. “The biggest challenge has been getting our organization known within the Brown community and the public at large,” Myers said. “I feel like part of the challenge is that there isn’t a lot of momentum for HIV prevention, since a lot of people think that it isn’t an issue in the U.S. anymore and focus on HIV in developing countries. A lot of people aren’t motivated to (focus on) HIV prevention, since there are a lot of really good drugs to treat it.”

In response, PL-AIDS emphasizes that HIV still seriously affects socially disadvantaged communities whose members often don’t have access to medications, Myers said.

“It’s not just a disease but a social problem,” he added. 

Though Rovner and Myers have both graduated, PL-AIDS still has an active presence at Brown, with both graduate and undergraduate students involved with the organization. 

Chang, a commerce, organizations and entrepreneurship and computer science concentrator, said it is challenging to balance his work for the organization with other obligations. But he added, “Since I’m doing what really interests me, I’m willing to put in the time.”

 

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Gavin Myers ’06 MPH ’11 entered the masters in public health program in 2007.  In fact, he entered the program in summer 2009. The Herald regrets the error.