When addressing the challenge of changing behavior, Marjorie Hill says it's easy to blame the victim.
But when it comes to dealing with HIV and AIDS, Hill says, it's more complicated.
"We think that personal responsibility is important and we certainly encourage it," she said. "But when you look at the numbers and understand the epidemiology, the most common factor that those 33 million people who have the disease share is poverty. Poverty doesn't transmit HIV, but certainly being in a situation where someone has less access to information, resources, education and power -- those are factors that influence HIV."
That's what GMHC, the world’s first provider of HIV and AIDS prevention, care and advocacy, works to change, Hill said.
Hill previously worked as the assistant commissioner for HIV in New York City's Health Department, where she oversaw contracts for HIV and AIDS patients worth around $400 million. GMHC has a comparatively small $32 million budget, but Hill says she feels more connected with people at her current job.
She's regularly in contact with people who have just found out they're HIV positive, received a hot meal from the meals program, won a court battle with help from the organization's legal team or gone to their first job interview in 10 years and gotten positive feedback.
"We really do believe in an individual's innate capacity to rise above difficult situations with support," Hill says. "We build self-esteem, and help build resiliency.
Hill's days are filled with meetings designed to further her organization's reach and expand the number of people it can help.
The first half of Hill's most recent Friday was spent discussing an initiative designed to reduce hospital visits, talking to an intern about careers in psychology, meeting with a board member about funding opportunities and planning a retreat for the board of directors to help them become better GMHC ambassadors.
Hill notes the undeniable progress that has been made since GMHC was founded in 1981. The organization went from providing people a way to die with dignity to getting them the first retroviral medications and now to helping them thrive.
"Over the last ten years that possibility of hope has transformed into giving individuals living with HIV and AIDS a chance to live productive lives," Hill says. "It's not a picnic. But it's a very different disease than it was even 15 years ago."
But progress is a double edged sword.
"In some ways, success is the biggest challenge," Hill says. "Ten years ago, 20 years ago, you could almost not turn on a television or read a newspaper when there wasn't something about AIDS. Now most Americans live their lives thinking that it's no longer an issue. That's a problem when there's 1.2 million Americans living with HIV today."
Hill takes heart in the efforts of roughly 1,000 GMHC volunteers who prepare meals, conduct mock interviews for job seekers and provide free legal services.
"They make this job great," she said. "These are people who want to change the tide of the epidemic. We still have a lot of work to do."
To find out more about GMHC visit the organization's website.