By JEREMY COX, The Florida Times-Union
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – Nestled between two Jacksonville motels long past their prime on a seedy stretch of Philips Highway, a small diner serves up hot coffee, sandwiches and a sobering message: “Stop AIDS: It’s everyone’s business.”
Patrons can’t miss the slogan. It’s printed on paper cups, napkins and brochures. And that’s all right with the owner of JR Grill and Mini Market, a gregarious woman named Rima Dagher.
“I see a lot of kids that need help,” said Dagher, who has owned the diner, one of the hardscrabble area’s few gathering places, for a decade and a half. “I see a lot of things with the drugs and the way they do things.”
A pilot project by the Florida Department of Health is enlisting Duval County businesses like Dagher’s to place HIV/AIDS educational materials where people can’t miss them.
Facing stubbornly high transmission rates of HIV in Duval, health officials have tried various tactics over the years to make the disease’s presence known: hosting free testing clinics, partnering with churches, reaching out to high-risk groups such as young gay men and black women.
But tapping the business community to spread the word? That’s new and its early success is surpassing expectations, with 53 businesses signed on since the program launched eight months ago, said Tabitha Robinson, the minority AIDS coordinator for the health department’s Northeast Florida region.
“Because of the stigma and how nobody wants to talk about (HIV), I was kind of surprised by the number of businesses that wanted to help us,” Robinson said. “I really didn’t get any no’s – few to none.”
The companies in the “Stop AIDS” program represent many walks of corporate life, including hair salons, seafood restaurants, convenience stores, dance clubs, hotels and – aptly for a disease that remains deadly – a funeral home.
The educational materials are tailored to different types of businesses, Robinson said. For barbershops, there are specially printed smocks. Convenience stores get rolls of cash register tape with the slogan on the flip side of the receipt. Just about anyone can take a hand towel.
Several AIDS educational programs were well-established in Northwest Jacksonville, where disease rates are the highest in the county. So, Robinson initially went door to door in the 32207 ZIP code south of the St. Johns River and in 32244 in the southwestern part of the city.
Chris Wilson, owner of Cogic Cellular Connection on 103rd Street, heard about the program from a church friend. In addition to brochures, his business offers free condoms, discreetly packaged in paper bags.
The goal is to make people stop ignoring the disease, Wilson said.
“A lot of people just won’t get tested on a regular basis because they just don’t believe it will happen to them,” he added.
It’s about time businesses did their part to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS, said Kevin Davis, a regular patron at JR Grill.
“One person can hurt a hundred unbeknownst to them,” he said, adding that he supports the information being out in the open. “You see it in health departments, but it needs to be in places like this.”