Their first stop this sunny Saturday morning is a methadone clinic on Bladensburg Road NE. The women are working the block when Bessie Wilkes, a stout 45-year-old with warm brown skin, recognizes an old friend.
"Hey baby," Wilkes says, offering a warm embrace. Wilkes reaches into her canvas bag and pulls out a row of 10 latex condoms wrapped in shiny black paper.
"Take these condoms, baby," Wilkes says. "We're out here promoting safe sex."
For Wilkes, a recovering heroin addict who is HIV-positive, the streets are painfully familiar. But these days, when she returns, she is trying to save lives.
As an AIDS prevention education specialist for Family And Medical Counseling Service, an Anacostia health clinic, she heads a peer education program called "Healthy Choices, Healthy Sisters," aimed at training the clinic's female patients to educate other women about safe sex.
HIV and AIDS are growing faster among African American women than any other group. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has encouraged agencies to target women in their education and prevention programs.
Family And Medical's 10-week training program takes Wilkes and other trainees to drug rehabilitation houses and community groups across the city to sponsor safe sex parties for women. The participants munch on snacks as Wilkes discusses issues such as how to negotiate condom use with a partner.
Wilkes also leads a Saturday caravan of women, all Family And Medical patients and program trainees, through some of the District's roughest streets to hand out condoms. Slipping condoms into the hands of strangers and old friends is sometimes uncomfortable, but the women, all HIV-positive, say it is worth it if they save just one life.
"I guess I go to a lot of places like that because those people generally don't come out of their environment," Wilkes said. "I guess I'm not afraid because I've been there. I tell them, `I'm just like you. The only difference is I'm not using today.' "
Wilkes was 17 when she ran away from her grandmother's home in Baltimore, started smoking marijuana, shooting heroin, sniffing cocaine. She sold drugs to make enough money to use them and went to jail countless times on drug charges. Still, she was shocked in 1988 when an old boyfriend reached her in a federal prison in Lexington, Ky., to tell her to get tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He was HIV-positive.
"I was like, `Yeah, okay.' I didn't think anything was wrong," Wilkes said. "I thought, aw, that's for gay people."
A prison doctor brought reality home. For five years, Wilkes told no one she was HIV-positive and avoided counseling or medical treatment. In 1993, she joined a support group in the D.C. jail; in 1995, she entered an 18-month drug rehabilitation program.
"I was just tired, and I realized I didn't want to die," Wilkes said. "In treatment, I realized I had nothing to show for my time here on earth. I never knew what my purpose was until I came here."
She is talking about Family And Medical Counseling in Anacostia, where she has been a consultant since last year. She was the clinic's paid community liaison until the grant that paid her salary ran out. Wilkes worked unpaid until the clinic could put her back on the payroll.
For the first time, Wilkes felt her life had meaning.
"So many of the women I knew," Wilkes said. "They were in the same environment I was in. They were in transition houses, shelters, and many of them were HIV-positive. But they acted like they didn't care."
So, Wilkes goes back to her old haunts to offer hugs, encouragement, condoms.
It's about 10:45 a.m., and the women are canvassing the area around Minnesota Avenue and 51st Street NE. A middle-aged woman wearing sunglasses and black stretch pants with huge neon flowers calls to them from a bus stop. "Hey, here come my girls," she says. "Come on and give me my issue."
A volunteer rushes over, opens the canvas bag, and the woman walks away with condom-filled hands.
At a grocery store counter, a young man, no older than 20, with drooping jeans and a baggy red T-shirt, slips up to Wilkes.
"Hey, y'all got some rubbers?" he says softly.
"Sure, baby," Wilkes responds, digging into her bag.
Outside, a police officer watches as they make exchanges with strangers. He moves his cruiser to a lane nearer the sidewalk and slowly keeps pace with the women.
Wilkes reaches into her bag and pulls out shiny black packages, then waves them into the air.
"Want some?" she asks. "Police officers need to practice safe sex, too."
Their mission ends on New York Avenue NW near Hanover Street, where people with glassy eyes hover, passing time. The women stop, join the talk, hand out condoms.
Before leaving, the volunteers huddle to discuss their day. One woman's eyes fill with tears.
"On the one hand, I feel like we did something good," says Wanda, wearing a blue baseball cap over her curly brown hair. "But on the other, I feel hurt because all we can do for them is give them a condom."
"Yea, but some people don't get that much," Wilkes says.
The women say goodbye. Their bags, stuffed with 2,000 condoms at the start of the day, are empty. Wilkes lingers a bit, pulling out a cigarette.
"A lot of times when we see people, we see ourselves," she says. "That's why I always say good morning and give them a hug. Giving them condoms might not seem like much, but a condom might have saved any one of our lives."
CAPTION: Barbara Dorman, who works for an Anacostia counseling service, hands condoms to a motorist.