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After a two weekend-long educational training workshop totaling 24 hours, five veterans are now the first certified health advocates at a community college as a result of a partnership with a university organization.

Geared specifically for the veteran, Latino and disabled populations, the workshop, as part of the Cal State LA Project Choice initiative, covered preventative measures against HIV, STDs and substance abuse.

With the goal of raising awareness of HIV, STD and substance abuse prevention within these communities, Project Choice-CSULA reaches out to local community colleges, such as PCC, to encourage safer decision making in the community at large.

“What’s very forward thinking about [Project Choice] is the targeted population, one of the great things about bringing it into the veteran community is sometimes you have veterans that have that trifecta; they’re [a] veteran, they’re Latino/Latina, and they’re a person with disabilities,” said Carol Calandra, veteran center specialist of the Veterans Resource Center. “It encompasses those aspects but also gives wings to reaching out even further into the community on education in those very important topics.”

A certified Veteran Health Advocate and board member of Project Choice herself, Calandra is immensely proud of the five veterans who recently completed the training since they are the first community college students to complete the training provided by Project Choice-CSULA.

According to Calandra, talking about HIV, STDs and substance abuse rarely happens in these three communities because of the stigma associated with having HIV, an STD or issues with substances.

“There’s education and advocacy [in Project Choice] and these are subjects that we have that we need to talk about if we want to stop the spread of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases,” she said. “If we want to educate people on drugs and alcohol, this is the way to do it.”

Current veterans’ club vice president Ricco Florom has big plans for the club next semester when he takes over as president. Florom, a former infantry troop in the Marine Corps, would like to incorporate more advocacy for other veterans into the club.

“I plan on using [the training] to get service hours for our group and try to get more of our members to get certified through Project Choice because there are a lot of veterans with this condition [HIV] and without knowledge of how it spreads,” Florom said. “And it’s not just HIV, it’s drugs, dependency, and we’re going to use what we know to help advocate for them, to be able to say, ‘hey, do you know what’s going on, here’s where you can get help, here’s what we know.’”

According to Florom, the fact that he and the rest of the recently certified health advocates are veterans just like the people they aim to help creates more understanding between the veteran in need and the veteran helping them because of their shared experience.

Additionally, homelessness is a major factor of the HIV/STD and substance abuse rates among veterans.

“The people affected by these are Vietnam veterans who were infantry, when Vietnam was over they didn’t get treated well so they’re most of the homeless that are out there now,” Florom said. “They turn to drugs, share needles … it’s just a cycle, so we’re hoping to [start] a program where we can go out to Skid Row and help and advocate for them.”

In a similar manner, Mark Castanon, who served in the army for 13 years and another three in the National Guard, participated in the training sessions educate himself and become a peer counselor.

“With this [training], it will give us the tools to be able to help veterans and homeless people in general,” said Castanon. “I want to be able to help people … or at least to educate and spread knowledge of what I learned around campus and around the area.”

Overall, Castanon found the statistics of individuals with AIDS in Los Angeles to be one of the most surprising facts from the sessions because it’s not shown in the media as much as it used to be when AIDS was a relatively new issue.

Reflecting of the success among the participants, a second set of training sessions is in the works in which students and the rest of the community are welcomed to join and become a peer health advocate themselves. However, the exact date for the next workshop is not settled as of yet.

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