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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 7, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 49
Not your average Dear Abby
Section One
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Not your average Dear Abby

Project NEON peer educators take it to the streets

by Morgan Jade - Special to the SGN

'A lot of people harm themselves when using & they get stuck doing unsafe behaviors, and sometimes it takes something tragic to make them start using more safely,' says Rone´´, who has volunteered as a Project NEON peer educator for over 10 years.

What keeps him jazzed about NEON? 'I feel good being out there to help people use more safely - to prevent overdose and abscesses, and to talk with them about safer sex. They can then take the information and share it with others,' he said.

In addition to becoming a role model, Rone´´ has successfully practiced harm reduction and lowered his own use. 'People look to me as a 'Dear Abby' figure & people can tell me anything. I don't judge... and I'm extremely open,' he said. 'Being a peer, I want to be a better person. It's given me confidence and made me feel important by helping people.'

Rone´´ is one of ten NEON peer educators. NEON is an acronym for Needle Exchange and Sex Education Outreach Network. An arm of Seattle Counseling Service, NEON is an HIV-prevention community-level intervention program for Gay, Bisexual, and Trans men affected by crystal methamphetamine. In addition to the work done by the peers, the program includes individualized counseling, group support, community outreach and engagement, and social marketing interventions.

HELPING WITHOUT JUDGING
The program is rooted in the principle of harm reduction. 'NEON & respects that some may choose to continue to actively use& [It] continues to empower those affected by substance use via harm reduction with the hope that the person will recognize healthier choices when they are ready,' said Aleks Martin, NEON's program coordinator.

Several local challenges serve as a guide for the work of the NEON program. 'NEON & addresses a uniquely impacted high-risk population in King County. Of about 12,000 people living with HIV in Washington state, about 8,000 are in King County. Moreover, Gay and Bisexual men engaged in risky behavior such as injection drug use are greatly impacted,' said Martin. In addition, individuals who use meth are 'often disenfranchised from the mainstream and experience ridicule and discrimination. NEON provides these communities a safe space for support - a family,' he added.

Danny Morales, a six-year peer educator, echoed these statements. 'There's a stigma behind how people perceive meth users,' he said. 'The drug has negative feelings attached to it, and you're automatically looked down upon for using.'

These challenges are faced head-on by the peers, who make up the core of the program. The peer group, which includes individuals in both active use and recovery, conducts one-for-one needle exchange, distributes safer-sex and injection supplies, and provides referrals to services in the community. 'As a peer, I've found that with about 90% of the folks I've worked with, I've helped them change certain behaviors to make them use more safely,' Rone´´ said.

Outreach work is completed offsite, at the convenience of peers' contacts. In 2011, peers distributed 154,503 new needles and 75,700 individual risk reduction supplies in King County.

'I like to give back to the community. When I was first using, I wish I had all the information that I do now,' said Morales, adding that he now 'can help others use more safely.'

ONGOING SUPPORT
Peer educators also gather weekly to check in about outreach, eat a healthy dinner, and receive a stipend. During these meetings, guest speakers are brought in from a diversity of organizations in King County. 'Peers are exposed to a wealth of information from HIV 101 to CPR, self-care to self-defense, vein care to nutrition,' Martin said. The weekly meetings serve to enhance and supplement peers' existing knowledge about use and harm reduction. 'NEON offers free, compassionate, nonjudgmental services in a shame-free safe space at Seattle Counseling Service primarily, and outreach locations through its Peer Education group,' said Martin.

'NEON helped me become a part of society again, and live again. It also lets me help others be part of society. I am not alone,' said Morales.

NEON welcomes individuals interested in becoming peer educators. For more information about NEON and the peer educator program, or other inquiries, contact Aleks at amartin@seattlecounseling.org.

Morgan Jade is the Health Educator with Project NEON. Morgan can be reached at Morganj@seattlecounseling.org or (206) 323-1768.

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