CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A new pharmacy in Charlotte is aiming to curb the HIV epidemic in Mecklenburg County.

Tarik Smith flipped through an album of old family photos as he looked back on his small-town upbringing in Lexington, N.C.

What You Need To Know

  • Avita Pharmacy provides free HIV treatment options and preventative care to help people in marginalized communities, including those without medical insurance

  • Data from AIDSVu shows several thousand people in Mecklenburg County are living with HIV

  • Pharmacist-in-charge Tarik Smith says the stigma surrounding the virus remains prevalent

Smith, who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, remembers feeling different as a child.

“There were certain things I wanted to do, I wanted to explore, or questions I had that I didn’t feel empowered to ask or feel comfortable asking,” Smith said.

Smith worried about living his truth at a young age. He feared how it would affect his relationships at church, school, and on his sports teams.

“I felt my acquaintances and my friends would no longer be my friends,” Smith said.

Smith still has the support of his friends and family and now lives in Charlotte where he works as the pharmacist-in-charge at Avita Pharmacy. He’s dedicated to providing free HIV and AIDS treatment services to those who can’t afford it or have trouble getting access to medicine.

“I always wanted to stand in the void for marginalized groups,” Smith said.

When Smith was a middle school student in the early 1990s, he remembers hearing a lot about a homeless gay black man who was known by many as the “joke of the town.”

“It created a stigma,” Smith said. “It made me ashamed of who I was and it made me try to hide it and try to deny it.”

While Smith never met the man, he says his story “profoundly impacted” his life and continues to anchor his call to service.

“That was one of the initial experiences or events in my life that led me down the path of service,” Smith said.

Smith spends most of his weekdays dressed in a white lab coat preparing delivery orders for patients living with HIV.

“I would say more than half our medications are shipped to our patients,” Smith said.

The national organization, which partnered with RAO Community Health, provides free HIV treatments and preventative care to help people in marginalized communities, including those who don’t have medical insurance or who are underinsured.

“We go to places where this population is, and because we look like the community that we serve, there’s a high level of trust,” Smith said.

Smith says he often works with people of color who remind him of his friends and family.

“I feel the energy, I feel the support," Smith said. “And it makes me want to continue to give my best.”

Smith started giving back after graduating college as an activist for marriage equality in 2004. Several years later, he enrolled in pharmacy school and found his passion working with HIV and AIDS patients during a research trip to South Africa in 2010.

A government-funded program in South Africa helps provide free HIV and AIDS medicine to people. But at the time, Smith found that many patients were still unwilling to seek treatment over the fear of someone finding out about their status.

“They were taking about 6 to 12 pills each day,” Smith said. “If you didn’t disclose your status and you’re on medications, it’s hard to take 12 tablets in secret.”

Smith says the stigma surrounding the virus remains prevalent and triggers moments from his childhood growing up in Lexington. He often reflects on the man he heard about in middle school.

“When I treat patients now who have the beginnings similar to his and I see the changes they’ve made… I think about this guy,” Smith said.

Smith says he’s proud of the work he’s doing to provide free life-saving treatment in a county where HIV and AIDS researchers say thousands are still living with the virus.

“In some way, I feel like in that moment – all the work that I’ve done to help this next person… it’s almost like a silent prayer to him,” Smith said. “It’s in that moment that I know I’m doing my life’s work.”

To learn more about Avita Pharmacy and its services, visit their website.