Each year, the Washington AIDS Partnership recruits, trains, and mentors a team of 12 young people who complete a year of service at Washington, D.C. community-based organizations. These 12 individuals make up the Health Corps team, a program of AmeriCorps. Each individual is a critical resource for the community. Not only do they help people improve their lives and health, but members grow immensely through a year of service. For the 2019-2020 program year, the Health Corps team is serving at 10 sites in the Greater Washington region. You can follow our current 2019-2020 team on Instagram to see how they are helping make Washington, D.C. a healthier, more vibrant place for all.
We asked the 12 members of the 2019-2020 Health Corps team to speak a bit about their experiences. Here is what they had to say:
HIPS is a community-based nonprofit organization serving the most vulnerable populations in the District of Columbia. Through its harm reduction model, HIPS works to improve the health and well-being of people engaged in street economies such as sex work, people who use drugs, people who identify as LGBTQ, and people who live in the organization’s H Street NE community. As a Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) community health worker, Matt Boden helps coordinate the HIPS Suboxone clinic which provides medication and addiction care for over 80 clients. MAT is the use of medications in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies to treat opioid use disorders and help people who are ready to sustain recovery. Matt also manages HIPS’ Naloxone distribution efforts. Naloxone is an opioid overdose-reversal medicine that saves lives.
“HIPS lowers barriers. No one is turned away, everyone is welcomed, and everything is free. To start our MAT clinic days, I call clients to remind them of their appointments and offer to provide a car service to transport them free of cost. Once clients arrive, we have hot coffee and a variety of snacks available. At this point, Community Health Workers (CHWs) like myself call clients to the back. I sit with them one-on-one to check in on everything from housing to the success of their opioid medication treatment (Suboxone). This is also a great time to refer clients to other members of the HIPS family who provide services such as support groups, behavioral health, identity document attainment, laundry, primary care, telepsychiatry, and much more. Once the client is finished with their CHW check-in and time with the doctor, we check out their medication on-site and offer them a care service wherever they are headed next if they are not planning to stay at HIPS for lunch or other services. I believe the details of our clinic day are extremely important as the little things are what makes HIPS a place people can feel comfortable and cared for in a system that does not always support them.
Throughout my time at HIPS, I have been lucky to work with such an incredible and passionate team. As I navigate the health care system to advocate for my clients, I have developed a better sense of its strengths and shortcomings. In the future as I enter medical school and continue interacting with the health care system. I feel that the loving and non-judgmental atmosphere HIPS has created is something I will always strive for.”
Joseph’s House provides healing care to homeless individuals with late-stage and end-stage AIDS and terminal cancer in Washington, D.C. The residents receive 24-hour nursing services, case management, addiction counseling, end-of-life care, and emotional and spiritual support. Team members Esmé Trahair and Lindsey Christianson serve as resident care aides, providing social support and advocacy, assisting residents with daily living activities and personal care needs, and providing companionship.
“In the main room at Joseph’s House, there is a large, worn, wooden table. The room is very busy – there is a fireplace, dozens of photographs on the walls, an eclectic mix of chairs – but, somehow, it is still the table the draws your eye. If you were to spend some time at Joseph’s House, even just a day, you would realize how central the table is to the house and the community. It is where we all eat breakfast every morning, where social workers meet with residents, where nurses discuss doctors’ appointments and life-saving medications, where we play cards together. In my mind, the table is the heart of Joseph’s House.
Working at the house is a privilege each and every day. One day, I might spend my whole shift taking people to appointments at health care clinics, hospitals, social services, or a multitude of other agencies. Another, I could drive our beat up, Dodge van to Maryland to go thrift shopping with residents. And another, still, I may be at Joseph’s House itself all day, cooking, cleaning, administering medications, and spending time with the people who live there. Everyone there works towards a clear, common goal – improving and bettering the lives of those who pass through the front door, whatever that may mean for them. For the first few weeks, I found it difficult to discern what exactly each staff member’s role was at the house, because everyone was so willing to pitch in and help with any task that presented itself. I have met people with the largest, most vibrant personalities, and I work with some of the most deeply caring and empathetic individuals I think I may ever encounter. I am inspired on a daily basis by the community at Joseph’s House – comprised of current and former residents, “friends” of Joseph’s House, and staff members.
Each Tuesday at Joseph’s House, there is a community meeting. At the meeting during my third or fourth week on the job, I read a poem titled “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Hario. The poem is about a kitchen table, and the significance that it holds in all of our lives. I had come across it a few days before I started at the Washington AIDS Partnership, and it came to my mind the very first day I came to work. The last two stanzas read:
‘At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We
pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table,
while we are laughing and crying, eating of
the last sweet bite.’
When I finished, there was a moment of silence in the meeting. Then another staff member said, “You would think it was written about this table, wouldn’t you…” My time at Joseph’s House has taught me about health care, chronic disease, and social determinants of health. I continue to discover more and more about caring, service, and true empathy. And every day, the best part of my day is climbing the steps up to the front porch, walking through the door, and sitting down for breakfast at the table.”
“How does one begin to describe a place like Joseph’s House? Climbing the steps to the old brick house resting humbly on the corner of Lanier Place, perhaps you will catch the smell of lingering smoke or the hot crispy allure of bacon on the stove. You might look around at its walls and notice the hundreds of photographs creating a unique collage of memories. Or maybe you’ll hear the loud clanking of plates alongside the boisterous, passionate voices all chatting at once over the dinner table. However, the things that make Joseph’s House extraordinary are not things at all. It is the people that give it life–past, present, and future–and it is the people who make it a home. A family.
Objectively, the tasks of working at Joseph’s House seem quite simple on paper — accompanying and empowering residents at clinic and social services appointments, serving them meals and encouraging their own agency in activities of daily living, planning trips in the community, cleaning the house top to bottom, providing personal care, and administering critical medications. Though traditionally a hospice home for the previously homeless dying of AIDS, modern medical technology has shifted its purpose to encourage a different kind of transition. Now, Joseph’s House is a place for the intersection of medical care, social justice, self-reflection, and rebirth. Yes, sometimes residents do pass away. And this makes our work incredibly difficult. However, I have noticed the challenges (and blessings) much more often arise from serving those trying to live and heal. I have held people as they have cried, mourning the life of a loved one or perhaps the life they have lived themselves. I have danced around in a clinic lobby, laughed to tears with residents over embarrassing inside jokes, wholeheartedly embraced friends as they reveal their undetectable status, which means they are so virally suppressed they cannot transmit HIV, and comforted those diagnosed with AIDS or those sent to sleep on the streets for the night. I have grown frustrated at new family members for their stubbornness or substance misuse. And I have told more people I love them in a few short months than probably my whole life beforehand.
Before this program, I would have never imagined all the ways this work would change me. I have learned when to speed up and when to slow down. I have witnessed the many systemic barriers that continue to harm people of color living with HIV and AIDS. I have built confidence in interacting with people who have vastly different experiences than me and discovered the beautiful way our own humanity unites us. I know that my experience here at Joseph’s House will benefit my practice in the medical field; this work is truly unparalleled for a young professional. Yet, what I am most grateful for is how Joseph’s House allows me to constantly improve myself as an individual, community member, and friend. I look forward to all the ways I will be transformed yet this year. And I hope you will consider taking on the challenge of working at Joseph’s House, too, for the wonderful opportunity to heal, grow, love, and embrace the vulnerability. Consider walking through its doors to reveal what many cannot anticipate: the warm love of strangers; a rich history of sorrow, laughter, and tenderness; and the ability for a handful of people to change you after only one day.”
La Clínica del Pueblo (LCDP) is a community health center serving Latinx and immigrant populations in the metropolitan region. Team members Kelly Reyna and MaryAnn Villarreal-Gonzalez serve as health educators, providing bilingual HIV and STI testing, health education, outreach, and supporting linkage to care.
“My time at La Clínica del Pueblo’s ¡Empoderate! Youth Center has been nothing short of amazing and enriching. From my very first day, I found home in the vibrant colored walls of La Casa, where the majority of the Community Health Action programs for LCDP are located. At La Casa, there is a sign in Spanish that roughly translates to, ‘The work we do is for our families and communities. It’s about remembering our histories, preparing for the future, and finding joy. More importantly, it’s about remaining firm in what we believe in and not letting fear overcome us.’ Passing by this sign every morning reminds me that I am contributing to an environment that fosters inclusivity, positivity, and community.
As the LGBTQ Program Health Educator and Navigator at ¡Empoderate!, I am granted the daily opportunity to engage with and learn from different community members. Most of the people we see at ¡Empoderate! identify as Latinx, LGBTQ, and/or as an immigrant. The intersection of these identities inevitably influences the care we provide, as we aim to consider lived experiences to provide culturally appropriate and trauma-informed care. Every encounter is an opportunity to listen, learn, and improve services for our clients.
My primary responsibilities as a Health Educator and Navigator include conducting bilingual (Spanish and English) HIV/STI prevention counseling, testing, and referrals. The referrals I make are focused on community health, and aimed at increasing access to care and other needed social services. I also facilitate weekly small-group health education sessions to help tackle the underlying causes of the HIV epidemic within the Latinx community (e.g. stigma, depression, substance use). Another vital responsibility I have is conducting outreach prevention activities in the Washington area to promote our mission and services to the Latinx community, especially Latinx youth. At LCDP, we believe health is a human right and do everything we can to invest deeply in our community.
This position has helped me realize a few things about myself. The first being that I am committed to a future in public health, specifically working on Latinx sexual and reproductive health. I look forward to a future where conversations about sex are open and inclusive. Secondly, I intend to continue empowering people in my communities through education, outreach, advocacy, and research efforts. I am a firm believer that a commitment to health goes beyond the notion of providing someone with medical care — it is about acknowledging and combating factors that prevent people from being well. La Clínica del Pueblo has really informed this viewpoint. I am beyond excited for a future in public health that will challenge me, inspire success, and everything in between.”
“Spending my service year with the sexual health program at La Clínica del Pueblo has been everything I expected and more. As a health educator and navigator, my favorite part of working with LCDP is attending the various outreach events throughout the week and actually bringing the preventative health services right to the community. Whether it is outreach at different Latin American consulates, thrift stores, or festivals, it is incredible to have support from the community to be able to provide Latinx members with an open and safe space to ask those more sensitive sexual health questions while also checking their HIV status and learning about the importance of prevention. As a Latina and young person pursuing a career in medicine, LCDP’s mission of culturally sensitive and comprehensive health services is in tandem with my core values of social responsibility, community, and service. It is a privilege to earn the trust from community members and help destigmatize what it means to get tested for HIV especially when sexual health in the Latinx community can be a sensitive topic of conversation. What makes LCDP an even more special place for me is being able to come into a new space, a new city from across the country, and feel super welcomed. I work with such an amazing team that is just as passionate about their work as they are in taking care of each other. LCDP is an extended familia I now have here in Washington, D.C. With a nickname “marquetita” because of how I refer to grocery stores as “marquetas” in Spanish, to earning my counselor ID after being certified as a counselor, LCDP really exemplifies how team work makes the dream work.”
Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) is a multi-cultural youth and family development organization that provides services to over 4,000 low-income immigrant and minority youth and their families in D.C. and Maryland. Team members Clare DaSilva and Kelly McHugh serve as youth developers, delivering HIV and STI counseling and testing and health education as part of the community wellness health promotion team.
“Upon arriving at Latin American Youth Center, I was immediately drawn to the warm and inclusive environment that characterizes the organization. Located in Columbia Heights, one of Northwest D.C.’s most diverse neighborhoods, LAYC fosters a respectful community through provision of comprehensive services that center around the needs of diverse youth populations.
Within the Health Promotions team, I engage with clients to address issues that impede overall health and wellness. As a sexual health educator, I interact primarily with people of color who are particularly vulnerable to contracting STIs. Through community outreach events and in-house testing, I am able to work with those who receive inconsistent care, inadequate social services, and have limited access to educational resources in primary care settings. I provide free and confidential HIV and STI testing services, educate clients on healthy relationship practices, and counsel individuals on how to make informed decisions regarding personal health given their unique circumstances.
My experiences thus far have reinforced the importance of advocacy and empowerment within marginalized communities. As a community health worker, I am realizing that I cannot adequately serve others without understanding the nuances of care within vulnerable populations. Too often, health care services are generalized to fit a specific standard of wellness without considering tangible problems that prevent individuals from managing their health. My time at LAYC has shown me the critical importance of knowing my community on a deeply personal level. It has been refreshing, challenging, and incredibly meaningful to work in an organization that prioritizes the people they serve.”
“In the past few months, I have had the privilege of working with the Health Promotions team at the Latin American Youth Center. I want to emphasize off the bat that LAYC provides an range of services, and I am continuing to learn more about all that it offers every day. The organization as a whole is built on the shared understanding that an individual’s or community’s health cannot be addressed in isolation from social determinants like housing, mental health, employment and education, documentation status, and the underlying systems that create inequities in all of these areas.
Within the Health Promotions team, I primarily work with the Young Parents Program. The program centers mostly around two health education classes created for parents between the ages of 13 and 24: one curriculum is focused on the prenatal experience, and the other more so on parenting itself. In recognition of the fact that health education itself is only a tiny piece of the puzzle to addressing disparities in maternal and child health outcomes, each participant also accesses case management throughout the program. They identify their goals and we work together to connect them to resources — be they medical, educational, or social services—that can help support them and their families. This is my favorite part of the job so far. Because my role on our (small but mighty) team centers around outreach and engagement, I get to spend a lot of my time learning about – and from – other service providers in the community. And together, we work to foster long-term relationships between our programs and theirs to provide the best networks of care for our clients. It has been powerful to look at the ways organizations across Washington, D.C. attempt to tighten their collective safety net by working together.
Going into this year, I knew I wanted to continue in my path of working towards health equity. I could not have anticipated all that I have already learned from the LAYC community, my coworkers, and the youth with whom we work. In our day to day, we are constantly challenged to confront and give voice to the structural racism and economic inequities that exist around us. Most importantly, I have the unique privilege to learn from my clients what justice and community resilience can look like., I am learning invaluable skills that will help me advocate for change in whatever my next step in the public health field turns out to be. I am very grateful to be here.”
N Street Village is a community of empowerment and recovery for homeless and low-income women. With comprehensive services addressing both emergency and long-term needs, N Street helps women achieve stability in their housing, income, employment, and health. Team member Reyna Sparks serves as the Wellness program specialist, supporting HIV-positive clients and residents, serving as an educational resource for her clients at N Street’s drop-in day programs and residential programs.
“In short period of time, my experience at N Street Village has encompassed such a remarkable amount of growth. I have been pushed and challenged, but I have also received more love than I ever imagined I could receive from a job. Each morning I enter the courtyard never knowing what emotions and tasks await me, but one thing I do know is that I will be instantly greeted by heartwarming smiles. Throughout my service year, I have had the opportunity to build friendships with the amazing women of N Street Village. Together each day, we create these small, yet unforgettable, moments. We exchange hugs and sarcastic jokes that make me laugh until I cry. We share our life dreams and encourage each other to strive to reach our full potential. I witness women break down as they share about their lives, often including the hardships and trauma they have had to endure, and then together we pick ourselves up with pride and resilience. I sit and listen to women tell their life stories so vastly different than my own. In creating these moments, I have become invested in ensuring that my friends at N Street Village have the best quality of life they can. Regardless of story or experience, whether happy or heartbreaking, this is what makes my job so meaningful.
At N Street Village, you always have to expect the unexpected. Some days are fast-paced and hectic, other days are a bit slower and allow for more one-on-one conversations with clients. My job involves working at both the Wellness Center and Bethany Women’s Center (BWC). At the Wellness Center, I provide over-the-counter medication, supervise the Village Corps Volunteers and volunteers, link the women to primary care with our Unity Care Clinic, and prep for the wellness classes I teach once a week. Downstairs in BWC, I serve meals, provide social service resources, and distribute a variety of items including mail and toiletry products.
As someone who bleeds womanism, working for an organization run by women and dedicated to women empowerment has been like no other. The energy is nothing short of powerful. Knowing I am a part of an organization that is dedicated to these women and their health and wellbeing makes me feel like I am right at home. At N Street Village, I am constantly learning new methods of holistic public health intervention. I am also realizing a more nuanced understanding of the unjust nature of homelessness, health inequities, and racial divides, particularly for women. I am confident that by the end of this year I will be prepared for the next stage of my life using the knowledge I have received and the situations I have faced at this job. Each day I walk away learning something new from my clients and feel grateful to have the opportunity to listen, learn, and serve such powerful women. N Street Village has and will continue to be such a memorable experience in this life journey of mine.”
Whitman-Walker Health (WWH) is a health center that provides comprehensive, accessible health care and community services in the Greater Washington region. This year, WWH hosts four members. Davin Hami serves as a health educator and PrEP coordinator, Jaterra Brown serves as an HIV tester and REALTalk workshop facilitator, JJ Larkins serves as the Social Media Outreach and PrEP School Coordinator, and Will Kelley serves as the volunteer coordinator and HIV tester and risk reduction counselor with the Bathhouse initiative.
“My position as a PrEP navigator and health counselor at Whitman-Walker Health has completely transformed the way I see health care and the role I want to play in the medical field. Whitman-Walker is an incredibly unique place to work – the environment is inclusive to people of all genders, sexual orientations, and identities. The space radiates positive energy, even though many of the patients are there for treatments and/or testing that may be stressful or anxiety-inducing. The clinic truly champions LGBTQ+ health care, and its origins as a small health clinic founded during the HIV epidemic reflect this sentiment.
I feel especially fortunate to help manage the free Sexual Health Clinic on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, where Whitman-Walker has its historical roots. At the clinic, I primarily help people access PrEP, an acronym for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. PrEP is a once-a-day medicine that, when taken consistently, will prevent a person from contracting HIV. I have learned so much about navigating insurance issues, including the complexities and struggles exacerbated by structural inequalities. Through HIV testing and sexual health screening, I interact with patients and help ease their nerves regarding their HIV/STI results. I am able to educate people on sexually transmitted infections, and most importantly, counsel them on sexual health.
For example, during one of my testing shifts, a patient shared how he felt uncomfortable talking to his primary care physician about sexual health because the provider unbendingly recommended abstinence. Through my sexual health training at Whitman-Walker, I was able to recognize that abstinence is not a realistic goal for many. Sex is stigmatized in our society, and as a future health provider, I aim to actively combat this stigma and impact my patients positively. I believe in shifting the conversation towards encouraging, rather than chastising, a long and healthy sex life.
On Fridays, I work at the Max Robinson Center in Anacostia, which is in Southeast D.C, an often underserved part of the city. The health care disparities affecting Southeast D.C. are in direct relation to the area’s lack of resources to organize health education and promotion programs. It is truly disheartening to witness a population that is both disproportionately underserved and vulnerable. Yet, it is also encouraging to see that we are doing our part to bring the same services we offer in more well-resourced areas of D.C. to a priority area like the Southeast neighborhoods. At my job, I get to focus on HIV testing and counseling in historically underserved communities, which has been an eye-opening experience. One of the most humbling moments so far has been counseling a transgender patient who was kicked out of their home and cut off their insurance. Seeing the look on their face when I told them I could start them on PrEP again made me feel genuinely grateful and inspired for the work I am allowed to do during my service year.
Working at Whitman-Walker Health has revolutionized my plans for the future and has had an impact on me personally, professionally, and emotionally. It has affirmed my desire to centralize care to urban, underserved communities. Although I may not see the same patients every day, I know the profound impact that Whitman-Walker and my role has on them. I will forever be grateful for the opportunities I have been given this year to change my own life as well as the lives of those around me.”
“Having been born and raised on the Southside of Washington, D.C. is what truly connects me to my culture and my people. Creating bonds through work and service with individuals who share similar roots as my own has genuinely kept me happy during my busy 11-7 work shift. I never thought an organization as large as WWH could also be so homey and comforting, but WWH’s Peer Education Center (PEC), where I work in Eastern Market, really is just that. At PEC, I serve as an HIV and STI tester and a youth workshop facilitator. Honestly speaking, all of my social anxieties go straight out the door as soon as my clients enter the center to check on their health status. The most rewarding of all my responsibilities is being able to comfort others and personally interact during what could be a very stressful time. Welcoming people of all races, genders, and socioeconomic classes with opened arms is definitely what matters the most. When spending time outside of the testing room, I enjoy my role as a youth workshop facilitator, assisting with weekly programs that vary from ‘Sex, Milk, and Cookies,’ ‘Vibe and Thrive Thursdays,’ and ‘Movie Mondays.’ It is evident that the youth who frequent our center greatly appreciate the activities that have been in motion for years now. I am excited to begin a new workshop, titled ‘All Things Health & Beauty,’ in which I will have the opportunity to relay different tips, tricks, and information about the intersections of body autonomy, self-care, and living healthily and fabulously. In addition to facilitating workshops at PEC, I travel to Washington, D.C. middle schools alongside the Leaders In Training Program (LIT D.C.) to offer sexual health education as an afterschool activity. In all, providing health services and education to those who reside in and near my hometown has been the most fulfilling work that I have done thus far, all thanks to the Washington AIDS Partnership.”
“We see you. These three words welcome each client who walks into Whitman-Walker Health, defining its mission to provide stigma-free health and wellness to anyone who seeks care. The phrase also frames my experience thus far at Whitman-Walker, but I would include a few additional words to fully encapsulate what it is I value so much about my work. Yes, we see you, but even more importantly, we see you where you are.
I have had the distinct privilege of being the social media outreach and PrEP school coordinator for the Community Health Department at Whitman-Walker. My position has opened my eyes to the significance of meeting people where they are in relation to their health, whether that be on the ground during neighborhood outreach or online via social media. I manage a team of influencers, collaborating with them to create personalized content about HIV prevention. The content we produce is tailored to the needs of their communities, recognizing that social media is an essential tool to impact priority populations. Similarly, my role as the PrEP school coordinator, where I plan and facilitate a weekly workshop series for individuals considering PrEP, allows me to dispel stigma around taking ownership of one’s personal health with PrEP. In addition, I am an HIV tester and counselor; I meet with clients both in our clinic and on our mobile van to provide a free, rapid HIV test. After testing, I refer clients to other WWH services, like STI screening or public benefits management, and then I work with the client to create a risk-reduction and HIV prevention plan for the future. I am so fortunate to have these diverse responsibilities, because I can improve people’s health in a way that best suits their lifestyle.
My time as a Health Corps member at Whitman-Walker continues to motivate me to combat the vast structural barriers preventing widespread public health. I am planning to attend law school next year, where I can gain the skills to revise the laws and policies which affect health, such as insurance reform and housing accessibility. This work, however, would be meaningless and ineffectual without knowing the stories of people affected by discriminatory policies. I am so grateful to be inspired by my coworkers, by the other wonderful members of the Health Corps team, and most importantly, by the clients who walk into Whitman-Walker Health and see the words ‘we see you.’ For them, I am grateful every day I get to spend this year of service with the Washington AIDS Partnership and Whitman-Walker.”
“WWH is a great example of how large health care institutions can operate in an inclusive, nonjudgmental way, and it has been very influential for me to experience this firsthand during my service year. Although it is my first full-time health care workplace, I think it will be a useful reference point when I am thinking through ways to improve other health care institutions in the future. It is also one of the most diverse organizations I have ever worked in, and I have felt comfortable performing a more expansive definition of gender because of that.
On a day-to-day basis, my job includes coordinating volunteers, HIV testing, and running the Bathhouse Initiative in the Community Health department. While coordinating volunteers can involve a lot of emailing (I have become the queen of embedded links and punny sign offs), it has put me in contact with so many passionate people who give up their weekends for a cause they believe in. I also run all of the volunteer trainings, which involves learning about WWH’s history, HIV stigma, and sexual health counseling in depth. I really enjoy my testing shifts because they allow me to forget all of my other responsibilities so I focus on helping each person I see. People do not just need an HIV test; sometimes, they also need information to quell their anxiety, a provider who uses their correct pronouns, or just someone to talk to. As a representative of an integrated health care system, I am able to provide clients with what they need. Every person requires something different, and every outreach location brings you a different type of conversation. The counseling session you have at the primary WWH building will feel different than the one at the bathhouse. The session you have at the bathhouse will definitely feel different from the one at the Baptist church community day center. The variety of experiences you will have while testing is astounding.
My placement at Whitman-Walker has been everything that a postgrad job should be: eye-opening, formative, informative, and at times, challenging. And best of all, it is with a group of good people providing services that patients really need.”