Jack Mackenroth came to Norwalk last Saturday to help young people understand something he was very aware of when he was their age: That HIV can kill you.
Mackenroth, who is famous in part because of the exposure he got on the television show Project Runway in 2008, is a key part of an outreach effort to bring lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth to a unique new health care center in Norwalk, the nation's only such facility outside of a major city.
The Circle Care Center at 618 West Ave. combines the services of World Health Clinicians, the Triangle Community Center and the Mid-Fairfield AIDS Project under one roof so people can get tested, have access to medical care and have ongoing support without having to go to different locations.
The celebrity was on hand for a dedication and ribbon-cutting at the center, which included a high tea, an auction of selected works from photographer Thomas Evans and a three-piece jazz band.
Dr. Gary Blick, WHC chief medical officer, said the center is modeled after the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. There is a similar center in Boston -- the Fenway Community Health Center -- but nothing like it in a city the size of Norwalk.
"There's no other model like this, not even in New York City," Blick said. "We've got something very unique and the outreach model is also very unique."
Mackenroth is a key component of that outreach, Blick said. The New York City fashion designer, who is also a model and swimmer, was told he had HIV 24 years ago, when he was 20. He was a "strong runner-up" on the Project Runway but dropped out due to an infection unrelated to his HIV.
"I was vocal about my HIV status on the show," he said. "I had no idea the impact that would have, just for the general public that knows very little about HIV, to see someone like me, you know, living healthy with HIV and having a very successful life. That has given us a great platform to talk about living with HIV."
Young people are not aware of the risk of HIV because a treatment was discovered in 1996, Blick said.
"HIV went off the pages in the mid-90s. ... Everybody thinks that it's stopped," he said. "Then we lost a whole generation of kids at that time because if you were 12 in 1996, you're 29 now. You didn't know about death and dying back in 1996, you didn't know about it now."
He said there are a quarter of a million people who have HIV in the United States who don't know it; 78 percent of them are under the age of 30, and a two-thirds majority of them are men who have sex with men.
Mackenroth agreed that they aren't aware there's a health risk.
"The young generation hasn't seen the devastation of the 80s and 90s and what AIDS can do to someone," he said. "I think they have a more cavalier attitude and I think it really is important to stress getting tested, getting treatment, protecting yourself, fighting the stigma."
Mackenroth said the goal of last Saturday's event was to reach out to men ages 16-35, to put a face on HIV and "take away a lot of the stigma."
"It's the stigma and the fear that prevents people from getting tested," he said. "I think you have to provide them with empowerment, and say listen, we have treatment now. There are things that you can do proactively to make yourself, if you are positive, stay healthy, and if you are negative, to stay negative."
About 100 people attended the event, where two speakers commented that it was a surprisingly modern and spacious facility. The entire facility is comprised of 11,400 square feet.
"When I first heard about it I thought it would be kind of a hole in the wall," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who attended the ribbon cutting for the center. "It is truly a magnificent structure."
"I never dreamed that the clinic would be this extensive, this beautiful," Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia said. "So much work that was put into it to help us deal with the very serious issue of AIDS."
It was a big improvement for the Triangle Community Center, TCC President-elect Rob Marino said.
"We tripled the space," he said. "Before, in the old building, we had one space that groups could meet in and it was very limited. Now we have three separate rooms. Technically, we can have five groups meeting at the same time per day. Definitely it's expanding."
TCC, which is described as Fairfield County's leading provider of LGBTQ programming, opened on the second floor in April.
MFAP Executive Director Stuart Lane said he hoped his organization would stay in the space for 20 years.
"We never dreamt that we'd have something as incredible as this," he said.
Mackenroth said the one-stop shopping of the center should be a draw.
"It's not intimidating," he said. "People can come and get information and then after that if they need care they have the follow-up care."
Blick said outreach would include health fairs and surveys of focus groups, asking things like what kind of social media they use.
"We're beginning to create that whole model today," he said. "So even though our message for the event is unity and community, bringing everybody together, Circle Care Center is all about empowering our community. That's our main mission, to get the word out, not just to the gay youth but to people who are at risk for HIV infection, those who are HIV-positive and don't know it, to get them tested."