The man in the photo looked fearless, said Michael Weinstein. Indomitable. His face was chiseled, his eyes fixed on the horizon. Printed on the jacket Dave Baker held stretched between his hands in the photo were the words, “A.I.D.S. IS PERSONAL. ASK ME WHY.”
Weinstein, co-founder of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a worldwide provider of AIDS medication and advocacy, was impressed with the boldness of the man whose photo someone had hung in his conference room, and he thought they could do some good together.
Over the ensuing years, Weinstein would seek Baker’s help in negotiating Columbus bureaucracies when his Los Angeles-based nonprofit opened a Short North branch of its chain of Out of the Closet thrift store/pharmacy/HIV test centers. The agency also would offer testing at events Baker, a volunteer, organized in neighborhoods where AHF needed an ambassador.
Everyday Heroes: David Baker uses experience to fight HIV, AIDS
Doral Chenoweth, The Columbus Dispatch
“What struck me the most was his honesty,” said Weinstein. “He is so real and relatable. He goes against the stereotype that HIV is only gay men. … And he was reaching an audience that wasn’t being reached.”
New AIDS infections in the U.S. are far lower than at the peak of the epidemic, and new treatments offer hope to those with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But the disease is still a major threat — especially within certain populations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 34,800 people were infected with HIV in 2018, and while infections are dropping among white males, they have not decreased among women or people of color. African Americans represent just 13 percent of the U.S. population but 44 percent of new HIV diagnoses. Latino people, at 18 percent of the population, account for 30 percent of new diagnoses.
And for each diagnosis, there is very likely another person who does not know they are infected and could be infecting others. That’s what Baker, 56, wants to change by spreading a simple message: Get tested.
Everyday Heroes finalist Dave Baker educates one talk at a time
It’s unusual for a white guy who lives in a suburban subdivision to appoint himself AIDS educator for the city’s Black community. But Dave Baker is an unusual guy. He goes out of his way to share his own gritty story — "I don’t allow the stigma, the embarrassment and the shame to keep me down,” Baker points out — and he has worked hard to develop relationships with people who give him credibility in the city’s Black and minority neighborhoods.
His unconventional methods include providing cash incentives to get tested — something governmental agencies are prohibited from doing — and enticing people to his presentations with offers of free pizza and raffles, paid for by Baker and his wife.
On a Wednesday evening in mid-July, Baker walked onto a platform at one end of an assembly room at the Milo-Grogan Community Center wearing a lime green T-shirt that read, “I Have AIDS. Do You? Get Tested.”
Seated before him were a smattering of people, Black and white, young and old. Neighbors Donna Jones and Jackie Delbrugge said they came mostly for the pizza advertised on the flyer. “You can only go to the local food pantry twice a month,” said Delbrugge.
From comfortable upbringing to drugs, crime and prison
“I grew up in a privileged household,” Baker began, standing awkwardly alone on the stage and gripping a wireless mic. “Dad went out and worked and Mom stayed home as a housewife. We always lived middle class. We never was on food stamps, we never had our lights be turned off. We were stable.”
Baker went on to say that when he was 15, his parents moved and he had to change schools.
“I was angry because I had to move away from my friends,” Baker said, “and so I started experimenting with drugs: marijuana, alcohol.” Things went downhill from there. Baker, once a good student, quit the wrestling team, dropped out of school and moved out of his parents’ home. Soon he was robbing people and burglarizing homes to get the money for drugs. He went to jail for 90 days, then was arrested again while still on probation. He served six years in prison.
It was shortly after his release in 1990 at age 25 that he contracted HIV, he thinks. (After his time in prison, he said in his typical blunt fashion, he “wanted three things: a hot shower alone, a hot meal cooked by my mom, and sex.”) He had intercourse with multiple women. Five years later, he became ill and was diagnosed with AIDS.
Baker was lucky, though, because research into treatment for AIDS patients was finally beginning to yield results. He recovered and today feels confident he will live a full life, although he depends on a twice-daily regimen of pills that includes not only HIV/AIDS treatments but also medication for Wasting Syndrome (the reason for his chiseled look) and bipolar disorder.
It took another decade and one more stint in prison before Baker became the mission-focused advocate he is today. In 2006, he finally settled down. Three marriages had come and gone, but Mindy, 16 years his junior, was the love of his life — and he hers. “I said we’re going to get married the first day we met,” said Mindy, who became an adoptive mother to his son Dominic, now 23. Since that time, Baker’s stayed out of trouble.
Mindy, who works long hours as the director of environmental services at a private hospital, attends all Baker’s events. “People love her,” said Baker. “They love seeing that we’re a couple.”
'His story, his passion' make Baker stand out
Baker researches policy and frequently buttonholes public officials to advocate for HIV treatment and testing. He met Franklin County Auditor Michael Stinziano that way when Stinziano was serving in the state legislature; the two have remained friendly, with Stinziano attending Baker’s birthday parties and getting to know Mindy.
“His story, his passion and his willingness to connect people with resources, that has made him stand out,” Stinziano said.
For 12 years, Baker told that story three or four times a month to new arrivals at Maryhaven, a drug and alcohol detox center, and then began organizing presentations on his own in the community.
“What was most effective was his advice,” said Clinton Joshua, who works as a teen counselor at Maryhaven. “Some took it to heart.” Joshua, who lost a brother to AIDS, came to the Milo-Grogan presentation with his wife, Brenda, who made four gift baskets for the raffles.
On the stage, Baker told his story, then gave out hundreds of dollars in raffle prizes, peeling fives, tens and twenties off a stack of bills he said came from an envelope where he and Mindy put a portion of their earnings each month (Baker is on disability). Due to COVID, he couldn’t offer testing that night, but the crowd seemed hungry for information. Nobody left the session early; at the end, he was peppered with questions.
“I really appreciate you for sharing your story,” said a woman in the audience. “It takes a lot of guts.” Mindy packed up leftover pizza for people to take home.
“If I could do an event every day, I would,” said Baker. “All I need is one person to show up.”
Getting to know Dave Baker: Four questions
What city or neighborhood do you live in? Galloway
What inspires you? “Knowing that I have the ability to educate people and help to prevent them from contracting HIV.”
What keeps you engaged? “Knowing that I am making a positive difference in people's lives from the feedback I receive from them after my event.”
What is a challenge you have overcome? “When I was diagnosed in 1995, my doctor said my prognosis to live was one to three years. So my biggest challenge was to survive, to live with AIDS and not die from it as many others have.”