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Charles Abernathy, 26
Certified Application Counselor and Prevention Specialist, AIDS Project of the Ozarks
Some people get a gentle nudge into their careers. Charles Abernathy had a rude shove. In 2008 his best friend was diagnosed with HIV, and he didn’t know what to do. To find an answer, Charles volunteered with the AIDS Project of the Ozarks. “I found I was really good at talking about sexual health and encouraging individuals to make healthier lifestyle choices,” Charles says.
Today he educates people about risky sexual and lifestyle practices, with the goal of lowering HIV infection rates. Charles has found a couple of niches in particular. As the coordinator of APO’s Haven Mpowerment Project, a program designed for gay and bisexual men age 18 to 35, he helps participants build social connections and communities that help them feel safe and affirmed in the Ozarks. In 2012, he was identified as a Next Generation LGBTQ Leader and invited to a reception at the White House.
Charles is also a board member of the GLO Center of the Ozarks and co-chairs the annual PrideFest. He organized the event’s Equality March in 2013. He is also a leader for GALAXY, a group for gay youth that he says—along with high school counselors and LGBT community allies—changed and perhaps saved his life while he was in high school.
“We have lots of exciting plans for community growth and development,” he says. “We want to let people know not to be ashamed, and that they are beautiful, amazing, and capable of incredible things.”
Job title and where you work: Certified Application Counselor and Prevention Specialist at AIDS Project of the Ozarks
Education: Currently working on a Bachelors of Healthcare Administration with a concentration on management
City or town where you live: Springfield
- How did you end up at your current job/profession?
In 2008 my best friend was diagnose with HIV at the age of 17. I was 18 years old and completely ignorant about HIV and how HIV impacts gay/bi men, especially men of color. In public schools they don’t teach comprehensive sexual health or empower LGBT youth to feel safe and confident about themselves. I do not remember a class that dealt with the realities of young people and what they face everyday, especially young people like me. I remember sitting in the lab room where I work now, witnessing the nurse deliver the life changing news to my best friend. I remember seeing his world crumbling and seeing his self-esteem turn negative. I picked up a volunteer application because he talked about suicide. Volunteering seemed to be the right thing to do. I can be there for him as well as provide more than just an ear or a shoulder to cry on. Today he is in a better place in life and pursuing his dreams. Seeming him overcome and not letting his HIV status define him inspires me everyday. Friendship helped me find my purpose and why I am in the public service field.
- Where do you find passion to do what you do?
I find my passion through my purpose. My purpose in life is to be in public service helping people become successful. It is to my benefit to make sure my personal and professional growth and discovery contribute to that public service vision and mission I have for myself. I find motivation by surrounding myself with individuals and organizations that want to help people become successful. When I am exhausted, I rediscover my passion when I enjoy and appreciate the small things in life. It is important to “stop and smell the roses” and to enjoy a vacation. There are millions upon millions of people in the world working to make it a better place for everyone.
3. Are you single/married, and do you have any kids?
I have a boyfriend. My mother is Emilia who will be forever 47. My brothers are Dherek, Mark and Joshua (24, 23 and 17 respectively)
4. What are your hobbies (when you’re not working)?
Over the past year I have been building my identity capital and finding things that contribute to my life. I really enjoy volunteering and being an advocate for people’s success in my community. I like this anime call “Titians Attack” because it provides a narrative of our complicated human experience. I watch TedTalks, and I feel my mind expanding after each talk. I love exposing myself to new ideas and situations.
5. Are you involved in any charitable organizations?
- NAACP Member 2014 to present
- FOCUS Foundation Scholarship 2014
- PROMO volunteer 2006 – present
- Program Committee Member - Martin Luther King Jr Unity March 50 year Anniversary 2013
- Center of Diversity and Reconciliation – LGBT* Liaison 2013 - Present
- Next Generation LGBTQ Leader Reward - White House Reception 2012
- Youth Facilitator/ Media Spokesperson/Community Liaison / Board Member– June 2011 – Present – The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of the Ozarks.
- Co-Chair of the Greater Ozarks Pridefest – Southwest Missouri largest LGBT Event.
They are important to me because they contribute to my identity.
6. Are you a member of any professional organizations?
Currently, I do not belong to any professional organizations because I felt I had to work twice as hard to prove myself in those spaces. I have tried but I don’t see people like myself or connected with individuals who shared my passion for social justice and the importance of inclusion. I created my own “open-network” by connecting with individuals that shared the same values and different talents than me.
7. How would you define the secret to success?
The secret of success is being willing to face your fears of embarrassment. When an opportunity of growth presents itself, you should not need to prove anything to anyone. That opportunity is yours and you need to face your insecurities and find people who want you to be successful. You do not have all the resources and you need to ask for help.
8. What's your favorite thing about your career?
My favorite things about my career are those exhausting days where everything that could go wrong went wrong and I face that and I survived to live another day a little bit smarter and wiser. Things have a way of working themselves out and as long as I can tell myself, “I did my best today, and for today that is enough.”
9. What's your favorite thing about working in 417-land?
I have an opportunity to give back what was given to me in community that empowers individuals to be successful.
10. What was your “dream job” at age 5?
Being a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger.
11. List three traits that define a successful career:
The three traits that I define that contribute to a successful career would be having an open-network so you can be expose to different ideas. Secondly, being prepare to take opportunity. Thirdly, surrounding yourself with people who want you to successful.
12. Why are you a 20 Under 30?
I want to help people become successful and have them then realize that when face with adversity you can still achieve your dreams.
13. What projects do you have on the horizon at your job that you’re excited about?
I am excited about the doing the first LGBT health assessment for Springfield, Missouri and the surrounding areas this spring and summer. For my volunteer work, I am the co-chairing the Greater Ozarks Pridefest for 2015 that is happening June 20. It is the largest LGBT event in southwest Missouri that attracts over 2,500 attendees. We are growing every year.
15. What completed project are you most proud of?
The project I am most proud of is organizing the Equality March in 2013 for the Greater Ozarks Pridefest. I had zero experience of organizing a march about civil rights. It was met with concerns and some people from my community thought it would attract negative attention. I had to fundraise around $1,200 to cover the cost of the insurance and police officers. I was determined that I was not going to take no as an answer. I wanted this civil rights march to happen and it did happen. Around 350 people showed up in the pouring rain across the street from City Hall and marched to the Square. It was amazing to see families and couples holding hands as they endured the heavy rainfall all in the name of equality.
Fill in the following blanks with five words or less:
Purpose makes life worth living.
A day at work wouldn't be complete without smiles.
Ten years from now, I hope I'm learning new things and experience life.
If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would be able to focus on school, travel the world, and contribute to the good in the world.
The best part about being a 20 under 30 is I did not do it for the resume.