The focus was on the health and well-being of Black women and girls at the Empower Her event at the Boys & Girls Club in Asbury Park last weekend. And although the day “A Multi-generational Women & Girls Sexual Health and Wellness Event” included fun, food and music, the message was one of being aware of one’s health and making self-care a priority. Assemblywoman Luanne Peterpaul began her remarks just that way.

“The education of young women is so important and that is made clear by the support and resources from the organizations here today.” The Assemblywoman was also clear that she knew AIDS was no longer the death sentence it once was, but HIV and STDs are still here. She extended her thanks to all of the organizations that came together to create the day’s activities, and reminded those in attendance that their presence and participation is what would make change.

Kim Thomas, Community Healthcare Engagement Specialist from ViiV Healthcare addresses attendees Credit: Lorraine Stone

The event was sponsored by The Center in Asbury Park, with participation from a dozen organizations, providing workshops, health screenings, HIV testing and lunch. DJ Tall Speedy kept the energy up and provided music for Zumba and an inspirational performance by Ms. Aurora Van Wales Irving. Workshops included topics to help parents navigate difficult conversations with their children, led by Darlene Tyler of the Em-Power Me Center in Asbury Park. Ms. Tyler asked participants to share situations from their own lives, offering support, suggestions and resources, as needed.

Participants also had an opportunity to have a discussion with a Center client, who offered stories from her experiences. For those entering the job market or looking for a new job or career, good information was available from the class Know Your Value Proposition, Know Your Worth. Skills such as setting a salary, asking for a raise or promotion, and also evaluating one’s interview skills were included. Other discussions addressed achieving self-empowerment, and learning about banking services and general finance information.

Sal Susino (shown), Mgr. Special Initiatives for VNA Health Group. In 2016, Susino and his husband Dion Daly-Susino, received the 2016 Harvey Milk Community Advocate Award through the Pride Network for their community service in Asbury Park. Credit: Lorraine Stone

Confidential testing for HIV and/or STDs was offered throughout the day. Kim Thomas, Community Healthcare Engagement Specialist from ViiV Healthcare, reported that in 2021 there were 35,207 individuals in New Jersey living with HIV. While progress has been made in HIV testing and treatment, HIV continues to disproportionately affect black women in the United States.

While we are only 12 percent of the population, we have 54 percent of HIV infection. While we are seeing a decrease in the white community, our community is increasing.

Kim Thomas, Community Healthcare Engagement Specialist from ViiV Healthcare

“While we are only 12 percent of the population, we have 54 percent of HIV infection,” Thomas said. “While we are seeing a decrease in the white community, our community is increasing.” According to the Centers for Disease Control, 40 percent of all people living with HIV in the U.S. are black. The total of all people living with HIV nationally is 1.1 million. Ms. Thomas says the key to a reduction of those statistics is by increasing information and education.

A happy guest admires the collection of formal wear donated by ‘Clara’s Closet’ Credit: Lorraine Stone

The organizations represented at the event will continue to spread the word, while others are helping young women to feel good about themselves. In fact, Clara’s Closet (part of Lunch Break in Red Bank) had several racks of formal wear in a variety of styles and sizes, shoes, purses and jewelry available for young ladies who were getting ready for prom. ‘I Support the Girls’ is an organization started in 2015 that does that literally – offering undergarments to those who may need an extra helping hand. Lisa Cole, Associate Affiliate of the organization, said they reach out to school districts and organizations that support girls and women who may be in need.

Ms. Cole represents the Central and South Jersey arm of the Maryland-based group, and she explains it is a network of volunteers who reach out to find and support those in need. Asbury Park is one of those districts. Organizations receive packages of bras and toiletries to share with those in need. Ms. Cole says they currently serve every county in New Jersey.

Lorraine Stone is a founding member of the Asbury Park Reporter. She is a native of Asbury Park, a journalist, actress and a performance artist. She is also a founding board member of the Asbury Park Museum.

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