By Patrick Hedlund
DNAinfo News Editor
EAST VILLAGE — If you're having sex in the East Village, they've got you covered.
A pair of local advocates is handing out decorative condoms as a playful means of addressing a sobering reality. The condoms bear tongue-in-cheek names like “Free DNA Holders,” “No Cover No Lover” and "Trix Are 4 Kids."
On any given day, East 12th street resident Rhonda Bolden can be found walking through Tompkins Square Park, carrying a container filled with the condoms and other safe-sex aids to give to willing recipients.
Bolden and her associate, East 11th Street resident Brenda Moore, try to make the sometimes-uncomfortable exchanges less serious by wrapping the rubbers in small envelopes personally designed by the women.
“We open this box, and people start laughing,” said Moore, 50, flashing the condom “covers.”
“People open their hearts when they start to smile,” added Bolden, 53. “People may be turned off when they hear ‘condoms,’ but when we open up the box, it changes their heart.”
The mission is a personal one for both women. Bolden lost a husband, aunt and multiple friends to AIDS, and Moore herself is HIV positive.
They each underwent training from the city Department of Health to perform outreach work, and decided to begin advocating in the most logical place from them — their own backyard.
“I live down here, so I protect here first,” Bolden said, adding they also hand out condoms in Union Square as far away as Harlem and the Bronx. “This is our park — we’re always giving out condoms here.”
Bolden began doing the outreach about five years ago but decided to add her own twist to the practice a couple years back by creating the colorful covers.
“I wanted teenagers to be interested — that’s why I started with the cartoon covers,” she said. “To get their eyes open about HIV.”
She explained that younger people feel less awkward about carrying around a funny envelope instead of the condoms by themselves.
“Isn’t that a wonderful way to promote wellness and sexuality, through good feeling and a smile?” Bolden said. “Without the graphics, I don’t think I would reach as many young people.”
The Department of Health sends Bolden thousands of official NYC condoms every few months to replenish her supply, and the women ask but do not require dollar donations for the original packages. They carry the full spectrum of protective prophylactics — from flavored to finger and female condoms — but “we don’t preach,” Bolden said.
The women explained that some people feel uncomfortable buying condoms from a stranger at a store, so they come looking for them in the park.
Others, though, still need to be reminded about the importance of safe sex.
“They think they can’t get AIDS,” Bolden said about the younger, oftentimes straight people she targets.
Added Moore, “They have this invincible attitude. They think they can see if someone has it.”
On a recent early evening at the park, the two women offered the free condoms to just about everyone they encountered on a stroll through the bustling square.
“They’re awesome,” said Mary S., of the East Village, after she and her friends accepted some decorative covers and donated a few dollars to the cause. “We’re happy to do it.”
While the women certainly don’t earn enough in donations to make a living off their work, the little bit they do collect helps them pay for the packaging.
Money, however, was never a driving force for their advocacy.
“I always wanted to protect people,” Bolden said. “I decided I wanted to be a person who could make a change.”