How a few are making a difference in HIV education for many in South Florida
Steve McAleer is the President of Impulse Group South Florida, which is a local chapter of Impulse Group, an all-volunteer group of activists who have banded together to help fight HIV and provide opportunities for men to have a chance to talk about HIV/AIDS and promote healthy lifestyles and break social barriers that limit diagnosis and treatment among gay community.
After seeing HIV rates soaring among gay men, Impulse Group founder Jose Ramos decided to do something about it in his hometown of Los Angeles, CA. He met with a group of friends to talk about the issue and in collaboration with AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), whom quickly came onboard as a key player. Together they organized the first Impulse Group. Finding quick success in LA, the group expanded south of the border and opened a chapter in Mexico followed by a third chapter right here in South Florida.
It was a pleasure to chat with McAleer, who, besides being a full time realtor with Douglas Elliman Real Estate, is serving as president of the local Impulse chapter as well as the director of events for Impulse Group, the larger organization that is expanding across the globe. We asked McAleer to tell us a little more about Impulse Group of South Florida, how he got involved in the organization, and where he sees the fight against HIV/AIDS heading in the future.
How did you get involved in Impulse Group?
Originally, through some friends of mine, I got to meet the founder of Impulse, Jose Ramos. About five or six years ago, I saw that he had founded the group out in LA because numerous people close to his age were contracting HIV, and he really wanted to do something about it. He didn’t feel like in today’s world so many people should be contracting the disease. I found out that they were looking to expand into South Florida led by AJ Alegria, a close friend of mine, as the local chapter President because the infection rate was so high locally. I went to the first recruiting meeting that Jose and AJ hosted here in Fort Lauderdale. Their mission and passion to make a difference really sparked my interest. At that point I decided to volunteer to join, so I have been with the organization since it formed in 2013. I started as the director of events, and then I became vice president until late last year. After successfully leading a team of volunteers to build and run the organization for over three years, AJ stepped down in December 2016. At that point I was honored to be voted in to take over the Presidency to lead an amazing and talented board of directors and members who I consider my family.
What is the purpose of Impulse Group or what do you guys set out to do?
Impulse Group has 18 chapters around the world including chapters in the U.S., Asia, London, Brazil and Mexico. We are also working on expansion into Chicago this year as well as areas in Western Europe. Impulse Group South Florida is a lifestyle. We are an advocacy and social group of gay men educated and passionate in all aspects of gay men’s health. We produce fun and exciting events that create a safe and comfortable space to talk openly about things such as STI’s (sexually transmitted infections) and substance abuse and provide education and resources for those who need assistance. At most of our events, we offer free HIV testing to make sure that everyone knows their status and can deal with it properly. We started as an HIV advocacy group but because there are so many things that affect our health as members of the gay community, we have expanded our overall services to hit those pillars and more.
Why is a group like Impulse needed in South Florida?
South Florida, including Broward County, is currently the number one location in the country for new HIV infections, especially with the younger demographic of those under the age of 35 years old. I think that that has happened due to a lack of targeted education and a lack of open, non-stigmatizing conversation. We really strive to throw events that make it easier to talk about your status, about stigma, and about all forms of prevention so that people will be more educated and not feel guilty or embarrassed about going and getting tested. We plan events that make it as comfortable, as easy, and as smooth as possible to be able to know your status so that if you are positive you can get on a proper regime to stay undetectable and stay healthy, or if you are negative, to stay negative.
Where do you see the fight against HIV going over the next 10 years?
Currently there are numerous prevention methods available including Condoms, PrEP and PEP (post exposure prophylaxis). We do, however, see fewer people using condoms now because of the availability of PrEP or PEP. We strive to make sure that as many people as possible know their status. If everyone that is positive knows they are positive and stays undetectable and the people who are negative use the prevention tools that are available to them, we would virtually eradicate the disease. I feel we can stop its spreading. But, the stigma that is out there often makes people not feel comfortable getting tested, start on their antiretroviral medicine or even disclose their status to people when appropriate. The only thing we can do is keep fighting the fight to make sure that people have all the information they need in their sexual health tool kit to remain healthy. Hopefully the treatment and prevention methods continue to get stronger and more successful.
How realistic is the idea of an AIDS-free generation in our lifetime?
Well, we all have to stay as optimistic and vigilant as possible to continue to push our government into more research and getting the pharmaceutical companies to develop the medication that will eradicate the disease. I know there is a lot of effort going into it, but I am hoping that momentum doesn’t decrease. I think once we can get rid of the stigma that still exists about HIV that alone will help. If you are comfortable about talking about your status and using the prevention tools available, fewer people will transmit the disease.
If you are interested in Impulse Group South Florida, you can find more information at facebook.com/impulseSoFL. They invite the entire community to join them at their next event, the return of their Evolution Pool Party, which will take place on Sunday, May 21 at the National Hotel in Miami Beach. The event will feature DJ Dan Slater. Tickets are limited but admission is free. They will be providing free HIV testing on site as well as other educational opportunities and lots of fun!