Meet Sara Brewer, Executive Director of Face to Face
What is your organization’s mission?
Our mission is to end HIV in Sonoma County, while supporting the health and well-being of people living with HIV/AIDS.
To this end, we empower clients with supportive services including housing assistance, benefits counseling, information, referrals, and transportation. We envision the end of HIV in Sonoma County through targeted outreach, education, and HIV testing. We strengthen our system of care through HIV policy advocacy on a local and national level.
Our vision is that all people living with HIV in Sonoma County get the appropriate care they need, in a welcoming, accessible, culturally competent setting: excellent quality services that address medical, psycho-social, and basic needs of people living with HIV; high level of community awareness of the state of the HIV epidemic; reduced fear and stigma; the end of HIV infection due to effective prevention efforts; innovative programs utilizing current technology; highly competent, satisfied staff; diverse and representative board of directors; effective methods of evaluation; and stable financial resources.
What project(s) are you most urgently working on right now?
HIV infections are on the rise again in every demographic and age group, although the most pronounced increases are among people under the age of 30. That says to us that HIV is not on people’s radars, and the experience of the AIDS epidemic doesn’t resonate in the same way with younger generations. This is particularly frightening given the drug and overdose epidemics plaguing our community.
We are also developing mental health support services, grounded in the principles of harm reduction, to support people who need access to more immediate mental health support who may not have access elsewhere. We can also provide HIV testing and counseling, access to PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), treatment and care, which allows us to take all of a person’s needs and concerns into account on any given day. We also now have the first 24-hour, free access, harm reduction vending machine in Sonoma County.
What measurable outcomes are you most proud of?
We have seen marked increases in the number of syringes and overdose prevention supplies we distribute each year. What we distribute is entirely based on funding—the more funding we have, the more we can distribute. The global pandemic led to a dip in some services, but we quickly went mobile and were able to reach more people, and as a result, we’re set to far surpass 2022’s numbers. It should be noted that the number of overdose reversals is based on what is reported to us by participants, which means the figure is likely higher.
What are the biggest roadblocks/challenges to accomplishing your mission?
Stigma and discrimination, which have persisted since the beginning of the epidemic. Often HIV-related stigma can intersect with other forms of discrimination based on gender, sexuality, drug use, sex work, race, or socioeconomic status, compounding its negative effects. Due to fear of stigma, many people avoid or delay HIV testing, which can lead to late diagnosis, impacting health outcomes and increasing the potential for unknowingly transmitting HIV. People living with HIV (PLHIV) who face discrimination might not access or be less adherent to HIV medications, which can lead to increased viral loads, diminished health, and increased potential for transmission. Stigma may deter individuals from seeking out healthcare services, and healthcare professionals might themselves stigmatize PLHIV or the behaviors leading to HIV, leading to subpar care and mistreatment. Stigma also influences policymakers whose attitudes influence funding and policies, which lead to decreased support for essential HIV/AIDS services and research. To combat HIV-related stigma and discrimination, it’s essential we invest in comprehensive education, enact and enforce protective legislation, and promote the inclusion and rights of PLHIV or those at risk for HIV in all sectors of society.
What do you wish local residents knew more about?
Harm reduction is an important approach that aims to minimize the negative consequences associated with certain behaviors or conditions without necessarily requiring individuals to completely abstain from those behaviors. It is part of a larger continuum of drug use and recognizes treatment is not always the right option for people. It recognizes that people engage in a wide range of risky behaviors, such as substance use or unsafe sexual practices, and seeks to reduce the harms associated with these behaviors rather than simply condemning or prohibiting them. When we talk about the drug use and overdose epidemics, we have to include harm reduction as an evidence-based strategy for supporting people who use drugs. For example, distributing naloxone, a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses, can save lives and give individuals a second chance to seek help and recovery.
By adopting a nonjudgmental and compassionate approach, harm reduction respects and values the autonomy and agency of individuals, especially those who are marginalized or vulnerable. Traditional approaches, like punitive measures or abstinence-only programs, often lead to alienation, resistance, and further harm. Harm reduction, on the other hand, builds trust and establishes a foundation for meaningful dialogue and support. A person accessing harm reductions program is five times more likely to seek treatment. By preventing infections, reducing emergency room visits, and promoting healthier behaviors, harm reduction can lead to long-term cost savings for individuals, communities, and healthcare systems.
How can people support your work or get involved?
How can people support your work or get involved?
• Share accurate information about HIV/AIDS and harm reduction on social media platforms. Correct myths and misconceptions when you encounter them.
• Volunteer at Face to Face—in our office or at our fundraising events.
• Support public policies that promote comprehensive sexual education, access to HIV testing and treatment, and syringe exchange programs.
• Advocate against policies that criminalize behaviors associated with higher HIV risk, such as drug use or sex work.
• Support access to sterile supplies and overdose prevention materials.
• Treat people living with HIV and the communities most at risk for HIV with love, dignity and respect. Challenge stigma in your community, workplaces and social circles.
• Donate to Face to Face so we can continue to support our community!
Educational Harm Reduction Symposiums start Nov. 8, Finley Center, Santa Rosa, 5:30-7:30pm