Through his work with AIDS Alabama, Tony Christon-Walker has helped countless individuals to navigate the path from diagnosis to treatment and care. As a passionate person who has been living with HIV for several years, he has become an influential advocate for the HIV and AIDS Community.
AIDS Alabama is a non-profit organization that operates across the state and has provided housing and supportive services to low-income persons with HIV/AIDS as well as education, outreach, and testing for more than 30 years.
“I really wanted to do something that was meaningful, that I cared about.”
Tony, who recently turned 52 and was born in Birmingham, discovered the community-based organization after feeling dissatisfied with his own career. “I started working for AIDS Alabama in 2013 after an eight-or-nine-year mid-life crisis trying to find something I wanted to do,” he says.
“Due to the fact that I am HIV positive, I decided I wanted to do something to help other people living with HIV.”
Tony explains that it is through his work that he has found a new passion and focus in life; “It has totally changed things. Before I got this job I had only been telling people about my status on a need-to-know basis because of the stigma it attracts. So, I would tell a partner or sometimes bring up my story as a cautionary tale for younger relatives.” Working for AIDS Alabama, Tony began to talk about his own experiences with HIV much more openly, saying, “Once I started testing people, those moments came every day. You’re testing somebody and they’re nervous, it feels natural to reassure them, to tell them that it’s not the end of the world. It got me talking about it in public and that led to the person I am today.”
“When it comes to reassuring people who are newly diagnosed, I tell them, if I can do it then you can do it too!”
Tony’s current role sees him supervising a team of 11 people whose duties include performing rapid HIV tests in the community and running awareness events. Tony’s team take care of every stage from identifying those with undiagnosed HIV to directly linking them to care, counseling and further support. he says, “For people whose test comes back non-reactive, we try to get them onto PrEP or give them information on safe sex practices and prevention.” He explains the diversity of the clients, and the fact that people have trust in AIDS Alabama because of the people who work there; “We have a very diverse group who use our services including a large number of African American men, and we have a young team, with a mixture of different backgrounds: African American, Latinx and a mixture of LGBTQ+ people, straight people, men and women.”
“We help anybody who needs our services. One of our main focuses is housing, as we know that if people have a stable place to live then they have better health outcomes, regardless of the disease but especially with HIV.”
Tony’s favorite part of his job is direct care and being able to positively affect the lives of other people. He sheds a tear as he speaks about the people who have survived extraordinary difficulties with the support of AIDS Alabama. He says, “Our service is important for people who feel as though they don’t have anywhere to go, or life has given them a bad hand. They get the diagnosis and they think that it’s the end, but there is so much more to life after you find out your HIV status.” Tony explains that using INSTI has made a huge difference to AIDS Alabama’s testing model, having become the first organization to use it in the state in 2017. “We use INSTI wherever possible,” he says, “I was initially interested in using it because of the short time to get a reading. We have been able to partner with a few schools here and a couple of times a year we hold an event where we test up to 300 people in a day. Having a test where you can get the results in a minute as opposed to 20 makes that a lot easier.”
“It has to be something that you live, and you breathe, every day.”
Tony’s work has led him to become a prominent voice in the HIV community, and earlier this year he was invited to speak at the CDC National HIV Prevention Conference about the challenges of reaching the Black community in the South. However, he says he doesn’t want to be thought of as inspiring and prefers to focus on the impact that his organization has on individuals. He says, “When you have a job you are passionate about, I think you can work it 24/7 and never get tired. It can be hard for people to find a job that fits them like that, but mine really matches who I am as a person.” He has been recognized for his tireless advocacy work, and for his dedication to the community. He even learned Spanish so that he can communicate better with Latinx service users.
As the conversation closes, Tony laughs as he sums up the value of INSTI for AIDS Alabama; “I’m just glad that someone was smart enough to realize that 20 minutes was too long to wait for those instant test results!”