During her inaugural economics lesson at the AIDS Outreach Center, banking official Pamela Zeigler-Petty spoke, initially, about war — and wheat. 

Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly one-third of the world’s wheat supply, she said, but Ukraine recently banned exports to feed its own people. Zeigler-Petty scanned the room. Boxes of Domino’s lined the back wall. “What are we eating?” 

“Wheat,” someone said. “Pizza,” another added.

Zeigler-Petty is the senior vice president of community development banking at Interbank. She walked the room of mostly young, Black men through a conversation about how world events — like the war in Ukraine — affect American food prices, gas prices and housing market trends Tuesday afternoon. 

The discussion didn’t include the topic that brought the group together in the first place. Of the dozen or so people in the room, more than half have been diagnosed with HIV. That focus on the whole person, rather than the diagnosis, is intentional, said Nigel Hutton, a consumer liaison with the AIDS Outreach Center in Fort Worth. Hutton works specifically with Aftershock, a new program to help people not only survive but thrive with HIV. 

“A lot of times once you get HIV, you just think, you’re just sick. And then that’s it,” Hutton said.  “But if that’s not the case at all: You’re still a person.”

The program, which began in May, helps participants become virally suppressed, as well as secure jobs and housing. 

“That way, when you do leave this program,” he said, “you will be prepared for the world and not just your HIV.”

‘A lot of clients fall through the cracks’

Hutton had barely moved from New York to Fort Worth in 2019 when he found out he was positive. A 19-year-old at the time, he remembers telling his parents he was going to die. 

Not long afterward, he lost his housing. “I fell out of care,” he said. 

A shelter in Fort Worth connected Hutton to the AIDS Outreach Center, where he met Wilburn Mitchell, back then a peer advocate. For about five months, Mitchell called Hutton three times a week, every week, to check in.

“I was really struggling, and he gave me my life that I needed,” Hutton said. “He was there to listen to my complaints, my wishes, my dreams and my hopes.”

Now, Hutton works to pay forward the support he received from Mitchell by spearheading Aftershock.

The program, funded by a federal Minority AIDS Initiative grant, came about because Hutton and his colleagues noticed that “a lot of clients fall through the cracks.” The inaugural cohort comprises 15 Black and Hispanic people between 18 and 34 years old. 

Aftershock’s demographic requirements reflect national trends. In 2020, Black and Hispanic people, mostly men, accounted for nearly 70% of all new HIV diagnoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The same year, people aged 13 to 34 accounted for nearly 60% of all new HIV diagnoses. 

The cohort meets weekly to learn — about HIV, mental health, how to prepare for a job interview, how to cook, how to interpret lab results, how to disclose status. Zeigler-Petty’s economics lesson is the first in a series on personal finances. 

Beyond education, the participants also can receive help with food, rent and insurance. 

To remain eligible, they document their medication intake, keep up with lab work and attend all medical appointments. The cohort will graduate in February 2023, Hutton said.

‘I can still live a good life’

When Latrell Friday found out he was positive in 2020, he remembers his doctor handed him a pill and said, “I’ll see you in three months.” 

He was 18 and living in Carrollton, and his family didn’t know much about HIV. They worried about contagion and made him eat from a separate bowl during mealtimes. 

As part of the inaugural Aftershock cohort, Friday said he’s learned nuances about HIV he’d never heard in school. He knows people can’t contract HIV simply from sharing meals. He knows that viral suppression keeps him from transmitting the virus to someone else. Most powerfully, he knows he’s not alone. 

“Being here and having support — because I’ve never had support — they have been my biggest support,” Friday said. “I mean, they’re literally all I have. And it’s been life- changing.”

Friday has a room through the Salvation Army and a job in the service industry. By February, when the cohort graduates, he plans to be in college, secure a higher paying job and rent his own apartment. 

He’s already on his way, said Kimberly Russell, the medical case manager for Aftershock. He attended a job fair this past weekend and has been accepted into a rapid rehousing program. 

In its early weeks, the program has succeeded in part because of the staff’s approach to the cohort, Russell said. 

“We’re more like family … They see Nigel more as a brother in Aftershock, I’m more like a sister and this is Mama Pam,” she said, referring to Pamela Jayson, the program’s patient navigator. “They don’t have a problem with coming to us when they’re having an issue.”

As for Friday, he has some bad days. Still, he finds hope in the journeys of people diagnosed before him and shares his story with those diagnosed after him. 

“I have this (virus),” he said. “I have this, but I can still live a good life and eat healthy and do everything I want to do — and be free.”

Interested in Aftershock? Contact the AIDS Outreach Center.

By phone: 817.335.1994

By email: info@aoc.org

In person: 400 N. Beach St. STE 100 Fort Worth, TX 76111

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis Allison

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....