On a chilly fall evening a group of friends volunteered at a local pantry to hand out food to people in need. Afterwards they went to dinner, as usual. Among the crew was J. Donte Prayer, who has routinely volunteered at the pantry since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He spoke with QNotes following the meal about his life as a volunteer, an HIV advocate and an eligible bachelor, with dreams of marrying Cleveland Browns Wide Receiver Odell Beckham, Jr.
Born and reared in Greenville, North Carolina, after graduating from Elizabeth City State University, Prayer relocated to Charlotte in 2016.
What brought him to Charlotte?
“A job in HIV Prevention,” Prayer told QNotes, “I started out at Quality Comprehensive Health Care. They had a prevention program called The Powerhouse Project where a dear friend of mine, Dr. Darrin Johnson worked. He suggested I apply.”
In the beginning, he assisted Dr. Johnson with research studies and ballroom related interventions. The two had worked together previously with Prayer volunteering his time towards HIV Intervention and Prevention activities.
Later on, when he was hired as a Prevention Coordinator, Prayer’s responsibilities and passion for the work expanded. As a Prevention Coordinator he tested clients for HIV and HepC, performed valued community outreach, provided event coordination and nurtured community partnerships to spread the word on HIV awareness, care and resources. He did that for The Powerhouse Project for three years.
Today, Prayer is a Morehouse College student working towards his Master’s degree in Public Health. Currently, he works as a Health Access Coordinator for the North Carolina AIDS Action Network (NCAAN). “Basically, I do policy and advocacy work,” he explains. “One of my primary focuses right now is making sure there is Medicaid expansion in North Carolina and other states. That means making sure state budgets include HIV testing and other HIV comprehensive services, whether it’s prevention or care.”
But that’s not his only job.
Prayer is a busy man who also serves as HIV Program Manager for the Center for Black Health and Equity. “They were formerly the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network. They started out focusing on tobacco prevention and over the years became more comprehensive, including other services like HIV Prevention. Many funders are apprehensive about funding organizations with AIDS in the name, so I think that may have also factored into the name change. Funders today seem to be looking for programs and organizations that offer more comprehensive services, especially harm reduction.”
Harm reduction includes syringe exchange programs, condom distribution, mental health awareness and access and substance use issues.”
But wait – there’s more! Additionally he serves on boards such as the Getting to Zero Planning Council, the Ryan White Planning Body and the HPTN096 HIV Vaccine Study.
With all that responsibility on his plate, one might feel inclined to ask, why so much?
“I do this work because so many that share my intersectionality are impacted by health care disparities,” says Prayer. “Because I want Black people to advocate for themselves and know that it’s okay to go to a doctor because their clinicians are providing culturally affirming safe spaces.
“I want to break down systemic barriers and historical trauma from situations like the medical mistreatment of Henrietta Lacks and participants of the Tuskegee experiments. Current disparities, stigma and situations like these prevent people from seeing doctors.”
HIV Intervention and Prevention take up quite a bit of Prayer’s time, both professionally and personally. Recently, he created and spearheaded ROLE (Reach, Organize, Learn, Empower) Models. “It’s a soon to be non-profit initiative that uses fashion as a health promotion tool, to influence health equity, especially among the Black Community.
“Because I have a passion for fashion and I also have a passion for health, I decided to merge the two. I feel like when it comes to LGBT Black people, we have an image focus. We care about style. So, I felt like adding a fashion component [to HIV advocacy] would not only raise awareness, but also help make health awareness more memorable and lasting. [Once] I saw a lady wearing condom earrings. It was an immediate reminder of prevention options that include condom use.”
Somehow though, with advocacy heavily coursing through his veins, Prayer still makes time to serve as a mentor and Big Brother for Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Central Carolinas – something he quite enjoys doing. As an only child himself, Prayer knows a little something about feeling like “the only” and needing an extra someone who could offer guidance, safety and compassion. These are all things he hopes to impart while sitting on the floor playing with trucks and cars with a seven-year-old he spends time with through the program.
When not working in HIV advocacy, Prayer enjoys travel, charity events, shopping and theater. “I’m very into anything involving the arts and performance, too. I [also] love amusement parks and have season passes to Carowinds!”
When asked where he sees himself 10 years from now, he doesn’t skip a beat.
“I hope that I will not be working in HIV, because I hope it will have been eradicated or at least managed. But I do see myself continuing to make sure that all people still have equitable health care and access to health care.”