World AIDS Day is every day for Miss Mary of Nashville

Posted by R. Neal

Today is World AIDS Day, an event started by the U.N.'s World Health Organization in 1988 to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS crisis. In Nashville, Mary Owens, a/k/a "The Condom Lady", is doing her part:

In the eight years Mary Owens has hit area streets days, nights and most weekends, dispensing AIDS prevention information, she has made quite a name for herself.

It's "The Condom Lady."

Owens, a grandmother of three who also is known as "Miss Mary," visits many of Nashville's religious, civic and business leaders, especially beauty and barbershop owners, handing out condoms, as well as information on HIV and AIDS.

HIV is spreading at an alarming rate among women, and particularly black women:

Owens coordinates the Sista 2 Sista program for Nashville CARES, where she has worked for eight years. Sista 2 Sista targets African-American women who account for about 70% of new HIV infections in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"In Middle Tennessee, from 1991 to 2001, we have seen a more than tripling of infections among women. And in the last five years, of the women who have been newly diagnosed, 76% of those were African-American," said Patrick Luther, director of prevention education at Nashville CARES. "We use the statistics gathered by health departments, the CDC and researchers to make sure we effectively use our resources to impact communities."

Miss Mary has come up with a unique approach to education and prevention:

A component of Sista 2 Sista is Shears United, which targets barbershops, beauty salons, nail shops and other businesses women frequent. Owens' mother was a beautician and she spent many hours in the shop with her, observing people and their conversations. Her daughter is a stylist, too.

The approach makes sense, said Dr. Philip Caple, a retired obstetrician/gynecologist.

"The barbershop is our hub, our therapy, in a sense, where many people gather and relax," Caple said as he received a shape up at All Eyes on You on Jefferson Street in north Nashville. "She touches a lot of people in a place that has a lot of bonds in the community."

As the article notes, Miss Mary the Condom Lady is tackling the problem one visit at a time.