During her youth, Vanessa Campus played basketball in high school and was offered a scholarship to New York Institute of Technology where she graduated with a degree in community health and psychology. After being diagnosed with AIDS in 1996, she thought her life was over. But with the help of GMHC, she has now become a powerful voice in the lesbian community as a health educator. In this question and answer, Vanessa reflected on her journey at GMHC and the importance of HIV prevention and education for women.
What brought you to GMHC?
My cousin Brian from the Bronx passed away from AIDS in 1992. He was a GMHC client at the time. I received my AIDS diagnosis on Friday, Sept. 13, 1996, and had three T-cells. I thought I was going to die. Instead, I found hope at GMHC and have been a client now for 24 years now and have over 900 T-cells.
What jobs have you had at GMHC and what do you do now?
I started as a peer educator in 2005 and became a community health educator in 2008. I’ve done outreach/tabling events and handed out HIV information to thousands of people in my years here. I’ve worked with college students to help them learn about HIV/AIDS prevention. I’ve also attended conferences, conducted workshops, and spoke on panels. I currently facilitate a bi-monthly lesbian support group called Lez Keep it Real. We talk about our successes, fears, HIV, and harm reduction. We also bring in experts and educators including lesbian doctors, lawyers, police officers, artists, writers, and entertainers to talk about many topics. The group brings together a diverse group of women ages 20-70 and we just celebrated our fourth anniversary on April 22.
What makes GMHC special?
Looking around at my GMHC colleagues, I see expertise, care, and compassion. We do this work because we want people to live healthy lives and become better people. I know there will be a need for our services for many years to come, especially education, food, and counseling.
I enjoy working with the college students who come in to help make Pussy Packs that have a dental dam, condoms, lube, and finger cots (protective barriers for your finger). You get to teach them, answer any questions they may have, and encourage them to play safe and get tested. They will often say, “I never knew that” and “I can’t wait to share that,” which tells me that they were excited to learn the information. Many have asked if they can take a Pussy Pack with them.What has been your biggest challenge recently?
During the pandemic, it’s been challenging keeping up attendance for our Lez Keep it Real group meetings. Zoom tech can be a challenge for some of the older women. We will be doing two outreach events next month that will hopefully boost attendance at Lez Keep It Real.
What has been your most satisfying project at GMHC?
I’m passionate about teaching and educating people about HIV prevention and testing. The First Ladies Care/Pastor’s Care was my most satisfying project. We went into three churches and gave out thousands of fans and bookmarks. On the back of them was a message from the First Lady/Pastor that resonated and inspired the congregation. I did a presentation after the service and shared how HIV/AIDS was affecting our community. People suffer in silence in church if they are HIV+ or LGBT because these topics are taboo. We collaborated with those churches for four years.
What keeps you going at GMHC?
When something’s your passion, you never get tired of doing it. GMHC took me in and then gave me a job. I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue helping people through my work at GMHC.
What do you do on weekends to unwind?
I love the game of basketball. I’ve been to over 50 Brooklyn Nets games. I watch at least 3 -4 games weekly. I love music like old school R&B, disco classics, and slow jams (I love lyrics). I used to go to clubs and dance. I can still do a two-step but can’t do the spins anymore. Finally, I enjoy time at home with my daughter Shanté.