By Jeff Kronenfeld
In this new online column, we catch up with local LGBTQ business owners to see how COVID-19 is affecting them, employees, and customers. If there’s a business serving the Valley’s LGBTQ community you want an update on, let us know at COVID19tipsEcho@gmail.com. (*Editor’s note: While we are placing these stories as soon as we receive them, keep in mind that during COVID-19, things can change rapidly.)
When Governor Doug Ducey ordered the closure of bars and other public spaces in March, Jeremy Bright and Jason Jones were just about to celebrate a major milestone. Yes, the couple has been together since 2012, but their impending commemoration was actually the two-year anniversary of their founding of a nonprofit called RipplePHX. The group works to reduce the impact of HIV on people in the Phoenix area, in particular serving the LGBT+ community. Since much of its work occurred at bars or in other face-to-face settings, Bright and Jones weren’t sure how, or even if, they would be able to continue
As it happened, the two are no strangers to overcoming adversity. Shortly after they started dating, Jones developed a persistent cough. Eventually, tests revealed Jones had HIV and that Bright did not. Early on, they encountered confusion, fear and stigma while seeking resources and support for life in a mixed-status relationship. Luckily, Bright went to see Dr. Warren Moody.
The doctor told Bright about PrEP, which at the time was still quite new. Bright even recalled Moody giving him an issue of Echo Magazine with an article the doctor had written about the promising new drug. These experiences led to Bright becoming more active within the HIV/AIDS advocacy community. A little later, he left his old career to go to work for the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS.
In the course of working there, Bright noticed gaps in coverage, especially for mixed-status couples like himself and Jones. To fill those gaps, Jones and Bright started RipplePHX. Bright is currently the group’s executive director, and Jones serves as the board chair. Together they lead efforts to distribute condoms, at-home tests and other supplies, while also making in-person tests available at events. In addition, the couple spread useful information, hoping to fight the stigma they experienced, and work to connect people with other programs and assistance.
“Jason and I started RipplePHX to create ripples throughout our community around HIV awareness, prevention and testing,” Bright said.
The shutdowns resulting from the growing spread of COVID-19 came shortly after the group had launched a new project called Lotería. They partnered with Latinx community leaders to host a game night at a local bar where they would also distribute information and supplies. Not wanting to let the program fade out and lose crucial grant funding, Bright, Jones and the rest of their team scrambled to reimagine the event. They created a way for players to register on their website and download game cards and while themselves figuring out how to coordinate mailing prizes to the winners. The first online event actually saw the number of participants increase over the last in-person one.
“On our two-year anniversary, we found ourselves rebuilding almost an entirely new organization,” Bright explained. “I think that initial win was good for us because it put wind in our sails. We had to work quickly and we had to work smartly, but we could adapt.
COVID-19 also caused the group to cancel its annual carnival. In addition to being their largest fundraiser, the day of fun activities provided a venue to offer free in-person testing as well as the other services. Without the carnival, Bright and Jones worried that the number of people they were able to test might decline.
To offset this and other COVID-19-related interruptions of service, RipplePHX started a new program called Ripple Briefs. When interacting with people at bars, often the Ripple team might only have as little as 30 seconds to get their message across. Since this aspect of their work was also on hiatus, they created informational videos summarizing important news items in about two minutes. They called these Ripple Briefs. They also began mailing out the items they once distributed in bars, a service that has proved popular and is in the process of being expanded.
Now Fridays see the couple racing to pack 60 or more orders before the mailmen arrives. Incredibly, the group has managed to hit its original goals in terms of numbers of people tested and safety items distributed.
“We were fortunate in that we were small and we had different types of skill sets to be able to adapt quickly,” Bright said.
As they raced to retool their plans and operations for RipplePHX, the couple also faced challenges on the personal front. In the middle of March, Bright lost his job, and with it his health insurance. Though he was eventually able to access health services, the experience gave them both an increased understanding of what the people they help are really dealing with right now.
Moving forward, Bright and Jones hope to keep RipplePHX’s online events from becoming stale while increasing the number of mailers they’re able to send. Currently, RipplePHX is building a type of concierge home testing service with Spectrum Medical which they hope to roll out as soon as September or October. The group also created a space on their website aggregating all their current offerings called the Action Center. While they continue to host events, answer questions, share information and mail supplies, they also worry about the future.
Although Bright and Jones were able to preserve RipplePHX’s core functions, fundraising is the one area they’re lagging in. With their biggest moneymaking event of the year canceled and operating costs increasing due to the shift to mail order, RipplePHX’s need is dire. For those able and willing to help, they suggest donating or buying merchandise from their website. It may seem like only a small thing, but Bright and Jones know even small ripples can become big waves.