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DUVAL COUNTY BUSINESSES JOIN FIGHT TO HELP STOP AIDS

Associated Press

JACKSONVILLE - 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 okay 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.

Chris Wilson, owner of Cogic Cellular Connection, 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.

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