Health Corps Program

Each year, the Washington AIDS Partnership recruits and mentors a team of 10 young people who complete a year of service at Washington, D.C. community-based organizations.  You can follow our current 2020-2021 team on Instagram to see how they are helping to make Washington, D.C. a healthier, more vibrant place for all. We asked the 10 fellows of the 2020-2021 Health Corps team to speak a bit about their experiences. Here is what they had to say:

Food and Friends
Food & Friends strives to foster a community of care for those living with HIV, cancer, and other life-challenging illnesses by preparing and delivering medically tailored meals and groceries in conjunction with nutrition counseling and companionship. Ian Arthur assists the mission of Food & Friends as the Client Coordinator, the important first step in connecting clients to the organization’s services.

“I am placed at Food & Friends for my year of service with the Washington AIDS Partnership Health Corps Team. Food & Friends is a nonprofit in D.C. that provides home delivered meals and groceries to members of the community with life challenging illnesses. Along with providing food, Food & Friends medically tailors each meal plan to meet an individual’s needs and provides a registered dietitian to further support the client’s nutrition.

As the New Client Coordinator, I act as the first point of contact and help individuals orient themselves to the service through first day deliveries and follow up conversations. My favorite part of my job is the opportunity to interact with clients, talk through their questions or concerns, and strive to provide a supportive start to their time with Food & Friends. Along with my primary role, I have been involved in a number of projects including creating materials for individuals new to the service and developing a health guide for current clients.

Throughout my time at the organization, it has been exciting to dive into nutrition, food insecurity, and learn how food is a vital component to managing disease and improving overall health. Being at Food & Friends has shown me that working towards health equity should not solely focus on what goes on in the hospital and include a network of organizations throughout different disciplines. In addition, my role this year has increasingly changed the way I eat, shop, and look at food in my own life. It has been an incredible experience to explore the role that community-based organizations play in improving health and I look forward to applying what I learn this year to my life and future career.”

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 Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) Community Health Workers, Ellis Yeo and Hannah Kralles help 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.

“Every HIPS-wide video call begins with an enthusiastic ‘Hiii family!’ and ends with an affirmative ‘I love and appreciate you all.’ From the very first day, HIPS welcomed me into the family with open arms. In the last few months, I have grown as a care provider by observing the compassion and camaraderie demonstrated by the HIPS staff. At outdoor gatherings, it’s sometimes hard to tell apart the staff from the clients because the relationships are, of course, professional, but also largely familial. Many of the staff members have some kind of lived experience with addiction or sex work and are able to offer a safe space to those facing stigma. As a result, HIPS is beloved by the community.

Because we live within a system that more often than not opposes access to harm reduction care, at HIPS we work to lower barriers by untangling the intricacies of insurance policies, organizing rides to the pharmacies, and handling any co-pays. Additionally, we connect the clients to other crucial social services such as behavioral health and housing. My role as a Community Health Worker is primarily to ensure that clients are able to receive their Suboxone medication and to facilitate the clients’ experience in whatever way I can. Sometimes it means googling an address for the older folks or fighting small battles with the insurance company when they refuse to pay for medication. At outreach events, we drive our van out into the community in order to directly interact with clients and try to recruit people for the MAT clinic. We provide snacks and safer injection supplies while initiating conversations about Suboxone treatment. We offer phones to clients who don’t have one so that they can immediately get connected to a provider who can write them a prescription. Once their prescription is written, we coordinate rides to take them to the pharmacy. The entire process takes only 30 minutes.

Due to COVID, most of our interactions with the clients outside of these outreach events consist of telehealth appointments over the phone. We begin the appointment by asking them how they are, and if anything is giving them a hard time. While it’s been a strange experience to build a relationship with someone without ever seeing their face, I’ve learned that you can tell a lot from someone’s voice. Whether they sound rushed, at ease, or worried. Sometimes I hear the bustle of their home in the background. Other times, I hear the cacophony of traffic as people commute to work. I’ve found that there exists a certain intimacy by transcending the physical confines of a clinic. Often, the phone conversations extend beyond the follow-up appointment. One of my favorite clients tells me about his beloved cat and their adventures together. When asked the question ‘How have you been doing?’, many clients candidly open up about their lives. It’s been a humbling experience to listen to people’s stories. HIPS fully embodies the philosophy of harm reduction, and I am grateful to keep learning about what it means to offer non-judgmental care and meet people where they are, regardless of what they’re going through.”

“‘Love, Lube, and Narcan’- the infamous HIPS signature that encapsulates an organization that provides dignifying sexual health and harm reduction health care while making both clients and staff feel like family. HIPS, meaning Honoring Individual Power and Strength, stands at the core of client-centered health care and exemplifies what it means to care for the whole person. As a Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) Community Health Worker, my responsibility is to do just that. Each week consists of a series of MAT clinics where my incredibly compassionate coworkers and I conduct intake and follow-up telehealth appointments and communicate directly with providers, pharmacies, and insurance companies to ensure that folks receive their Suboxone or Buprenorphine prescriptions. In conversations with clients, we also inquire about the diverse factors that contribute to an individual’s wellbeing including stressors and difficulties since last appointment, housing and employment, sexual health such as HIV and Hepatitis C testing, mental health, elements of drug use and recovery, and much more. We then draw from a wealth of resources internal to HIPS and externally in the community to address these multidimensional components. In addition to remote telehealth appointments, there are a variety of outreach events including weekly trips on the HIPS Mobile Outreach Van to link folks who are ready to stop using opioids to our MAT program.

In my three months at HIPS I have learned and grown, as an individual and future health professional, more than I ever could have imagined. Whether it is learning to unlearn the harmful stereotypes given to those engaging in street economies such as sex work and drug use, practicing patience and presence to form relationships with clients, or developing the skills necessary to combat the effects of stigma evident in insurance companies and the flexibility that individualized health care at HIPS necessitates, this work has proven to be truly transformative. The experience of working with people battling substance use disorders, who may simultaneously experience homelessness or live with an HIV-positive status, has given me an understanding and knowledge to share about treating vulnerable populations with unique needs, populations that everyone needs to better understand. I am extremely grateful to be serving both at HIPS alongside a team of empathetic, supportive, and devoted coworkers and in the Washington AIDS Partnership Health Corps program with nine incredible WAP fellows.”

Joseph’s House
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 Jimmy Clarke and Reagan Dunham serve as Resident Care Aides, providing social support and advocacy, assisting residents with daily living activities and personal care needs, and providing companionship.

“I was trying to come up with a way to describe Joseph’s house in a succinct way, but the only word that continuously came to mind was ‘unique.’ It is a community unlike anything I have ever experienced. Walking up Lanier Place on a quiet morning, one might not think much of the corner house, but I can now feel the familiar heartbeat that the house pulses through the neighborhood. Whether it’s former residents meeting with staff outside, passersby checking the large free library box, or volunteers and residents strolling around the neighborhood for exercise and errands, community emanates from Joseph’s House. Step inside the house, and it will be immediately clear to you how this humble home has changed so many lives and become the heart of a vibrant community. Every time I cross the threshold into Jhouse, I am greeted with warm hellos and COVID-friendly elbow bumps. I can’t count the times I’ve gotten sidetracked by enthusiastic conversations with residents and staff offering extra breakfast before I’ve even gotten the chance to set my bag down. It is a house built by kindness, and you can see that in its walls, which are held up by hundreds of pictures of former residents and staff.

Joseph’s house is the type of place where you can’t have the same day twice. I learned this very quickly in my first few days at the house, but I’ve also learned to find comfort and growth in this unpredictability. No task is menial or unimportant in a place like Jhouse. One day, I might accompany a resident to an appointment with their oncologist to discuss ongoing treatment, then take another resident to a thrift store. The next day, I might make breakfast, clean the house, perform bedside care and wound dressing, and administer medications. The day after that, I could play cards with residents, help with administrative tasks, schedule appointments, and call social service agencies. The days I would never give up include sitting and being present with residents approaching their final days. With this house comes all of the emotions of life. I’ve felt pure, unbridled joy; frustration; grief; worry; love; and gratitude. Where else can I spend one day learning about a resident’s life and challenges while on a walk, the next sitting with a resident and friend as they prepare to pass, and the next dancing to disco songs in the garden?

Joseph’s House has already changed me and my career goals. I’ve learned more about empathy here in a short amount of time than I think I would in a lifetime elsewhere. I’ve learned how to navigate identity and trauma, and how important it is to listen before you act or judge. I’ve seen how the world has treated people of different races, origins, identities, and genders. I know the importance of connection despite differences in background, and I know how to interact with someone who may seem to differ profoundly from me. My work at Joseph’s House has amplified my desire to remedy the wrongs of the world on the people who have been left behind by the system. I’ve seen the struggles of HIV/AIDS, housing instability, mental health, and other chronic illnesses. I know how important it is to act with empathy, compassion, and most importantly, cooperation. The experience of working on a team with social workers, nurses, mental health professionals, and the residents themselves has been more enriching than I could’ve predicted. Joseph’s House has taught me life lessons outside of my career as well. I know how important it is to meet someone where they’re at in that moment (rather than where you expect them to be). I know how to tackle emotions head-on rather than skirting around them. Most importantly, I know how to form a connection based on respect and compassion.”

“On my very first day at Joseph’s House, staff members met for the weekly staff meeting. Some staff members were physically present in the house, but most were joining us via Zoom. I nervously took my spot at the dining room and glanced around the room at the full-time Community Care Aides who had stopped their busy routine of cooking, cleaning, and administering medications to residents to sit still and reflect for the next two hours. The topic of the meeting that day was grief and mourning, and I learned that a beloved member of the Joseph’s House community had recently passed away from COVID-19. I listened as staff members recounted memories about this person, who I never had the privilege of meeting, and heard them stress the importance of community as everyone worked through their feelings of grief and their hope for the future.

Even after working at Joseph’s House for nearly four months, each day brings a new ‘first’ for me. My first time holding a hospice patient’s hand and gently administering liquid medications. Baking chicken in the oven and hoping that I don’t burn it before the residents eat dinner at 6pm. Attending my first confirmation. Driving our Dodge van to a hospital or community clinic in a part of the city I’ve never been to before so that a resident can attend a medical appointment. My first time planning a safe, masked, and socially-distant Halloween party for residents and former residents. I knew from the moment I applied to this program that I wanted to work at Joseph’s House because I knew that it would push me out of my comfort zone and into new situations that would mold me into a better caregiver. What I didn’t know was that this position would force me to adapt and evolve almost every day as I encounter another ‘first.’ I have learned that life is so resilient and yet also so fragile. And that we hold both of these truths at the same time, never knowing which way the pendulum will swing. I’ve learned that life is precious and should be cherished while we are all still here to enjoy it together, and I cannot thank Joseph’s House and WAP enough for that lesson.”

La Clínica del Pueblo
La Clínica del Pueblo (LCDP) is a community health center serving Latinx and immigrant populations in the metropolitan region. As a Health Educator & Navigator, Nicole Muehleisen assists LCDP with providing bilingual HIV and STI testing, health education, outreach, and supporting linkage to care.

“One of my co-workers at La Clínica del Pueblo (LCDP) is a woman who has lived in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of D.C. for more than thirty years. She acknowledges that while the neighborhood has changed over time, there has been a consistent importance of community organizations in the area. This quickly became obvious in my street encounters with people: almost everyone I spoke to knew of La Clínica. They recognize it as place where they have gone to get treated for the flu, to get an HIV test, to go to therapy. It is a place where they can receive linguistically appropriate and culturally sensitive care. I myself know it as a home I have found the last couple months.

This year, I am serving as a Health Educator & Navigator within the sexual health program, where I am primarily responsible for conducting HIV testing and outreach within the community. While COVID-19 has changed some of our outreach events, we are beginning to return to the areas we routinely conducted testing: Latin American consulates, local businesses, and local parks. Each outreach event is an opportunity to engage with the community and provide room for conversations about prevention and sexual health that are unfortunately often stigmatized within the Latinx community.

In my role, I also co-facilitate Sexual Health Education sessions, and I feel excited each time someone asks questions about their sexual health. It is a privilege to be able to be part of carving that space because I recognize that it has a long history in the making, especially because many of the individuals LCDP sees have identities—whether LGBTQ+, Latinx, or immigrant—that have otherwise made accessing health and social services more challenging. LCDP is ultimately grounded in an understanding of these barriers to health; it is why so much of our work involves reaching out to the community, so they can later reach out to us.

Each day in LCDP La Casa’s brightly colored and carefully adorned rooms, I am learning about the importance of understanding, empathetic care. It is the same type of care I receive from my team whenever I am struggling with something, and it is what I hope to apply in my interactions as a future physician. While the current pandemic has certainly rendered health disparities more apparent, I am grateful to be learning how to counteract these disparities this year in a place that is so firmly rooted in the community it serves.”

Latin American Youth Center
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 member Alexis Palmer serves as Youth Health Developer, delivering HIV and STI counseling and testing and health education as part of the community wellness health promotion team.

“I have had the privilege of working at the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC). During my time at LAYC, I have served as the Health Promotions Counseling, Testing, Referral, and Linkage (CTRL) Youth Health Developer with a focus on Homeless Youth Services programming.

It has been especially inspiring to witness the multitude of ways in which the Latin American Youth Center has only increased its efforts to assist its clients during such unprecedented and challenging times. My position has allowed me to provide free and confidential in-person HIV, STI, and other testing services to LAYC clients during a period in which it is difficult to access these types of services. Within the LAYC LGBTQ Residential Program, Homeless Youth Drop-in Center, Transitional Housing Program, and Foster Care Program, I lead in the organization of HIV/STI screening days at residential sites and planning health prevention workshops.

As a community health worker, I have had the opportunity to provide trauma-informed care and counseling to individuals interested in improving their sexual health and wellness. In addition to serving as a clinical tester, I assist with shipping test specimens, interfacing with the Department of Health about test results, and collecting and entering patient data into LAYC’s on-line data entry system, Efforts to Outcomes (ETO). LAYC’s emphasis on community partnership and engagement aligns with its mission to prioritize the population it serves by identifying, targeting, and mitigating specific problems that prevent them from managing their health. By successfully implementing and adhering to a youth development model that offers a continuum of services, programs, and opportunities, the Latin American Youth Center remains a reputable and well-respected agency within its community.

As an aspiring physician, it is enlightening to participate in a unique health-focused program like the Washington AIDS Partnership. I have witnessed firsthand the benefits of being a health care service provider that is both scientifically competent and culturally responsive. In addition to providing solace to individuals who face hardships and stigmatization at a higher rate than others, I am developing into a leader that is sensitive to the socio-contextual determinants of health and proficient in scientific communication. After completing the Health Corps program, I would like to continue participating in similar activities and applying the strategies that I have witnessed to foster relationships between community programs and clinics. The health care system currently suffers from its inability to provide patient-centered care by ignoring the social determinants that inhibit individuals from receiving adequate services. In this program, I continue to be inspired to combat such flaws and understand why a holistic approach is necessary to advance health care services.”

Whitman-Walker Health
Whitman-Walker Health (WWH) is a health center that provides comprehensive, accessible health care and community services in the Greater Washington region. Its mission is to offer affirming services to all, with a special expertise in HIV and LGBTQ care. This year, WWH hosts three members. Brendan Pulsifer serves as the Social Media Outreach and HIV Prevention Coordinator; Cecil Hill serves as the Gay Men’s Health and Wellness PrEP Navigator; and Jared Bergen serves as the PrEP Program Coordinator.

“I serve as Social Media Outreach HIV Prevention Coordinator at Whitman-Walker. My role has two main components: HIV/STI testing & counseling and social media outreach.

With HIV/STI testing & counseling, I get to work directly with individuals. Some come in just for a regular check up, and others come in crying because of a recent exposure. No matter the situation, I hear my clients’ stories and use my training to provide or connect them with the services they need. I use my knowledge to educate them on sexual health (yes, four BILLION people in the world are estimated to have the herpes simplex virus, and no, wearing two condoms is not better than wearing one). I use my phlebotomy training to do finger prick blood draws for the INSTI HIV test and IV blood draws and swabs for the STI tests. And I use the incredible resources around me at Whitman-Walker to get them quite literally anything they need, from primary care to gender affirming care to legal services. I have never felt such professional responsibility before — a client’s world can be totally changed in the thirty minutes they spend with me — but I have also never felt so certain that this kind of clinical work is what I want to spend my life doing.

With social media outreach, I get to effect change on a greater scale in a subtler fashion. Social media has traditionally been an auxiliary part of community outreach. In the COVID-19 pandemic, it is everything. The social media program’s novelty offers me latitude to try new styles of engagement. I primarily manage Whitman-Walker’s Community Health Influencers (i.e. clients with a large following on social media), who go Live on Instagram a few times a week about relevant health concerns to an audience of hundreds. I also create infographics in Adobe Spark that both excite and inform our followers on a variety of topics, from COVID-19 to LGBTQ health. As we have collectively learned with COVID-19, proper communication about health issues can make the difference between success and failure. I’m honored to help Whitman-Walker achieve success.

In the long-term, I want to be a medical doctor who pioneers high-impact interventions that change the health behaviors of large populations. My dual responsibilities at Whitman-Walker perfectly prepare me for that ambition. Moreover, WAP has grounded me with a solid network of friends, co-workers, and mentors that I will keep my whole life. I could not have asked for a better year!”

“At Whitman-Walker, I serve as a Gay Men’s Health and Wellness PrEP Navigator and it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been a part of. I have the privilege of working with a diverse group of people from all walks a life. In my role, I work with the GMHW team in assisting other medical professionals in providing treatment, counseling, and STI testing for our patients. My primary role allows me to talk to our patients about PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) which is a once-a-day medication that prevents a person from contracting HIV when taken consistently. This role has opened my eyes to the obvious gaps and challenges our health care system uses to deter people from getting the proper help they need. I always compare working at Whitman-Walker in D.C. to health clinics I know back home in Mississippi. I can’t help but think of different ways my community can be impacted for the better if we had a clinic like this. Working with the GMHW clinic has reshaped my future aspirations and has forced me to reevaluate future choices as I matriculate into the next phase of my life. I am eternally grateful for this role and program for allowing me to experience these opportunities during a pandemic.”

“This year, I am serving as the PrEP program coordinator, a new role within the PrEP Clinic at Whitman-Walker Health. My role is tasked with working alongside our PrEP specialists to meet the clinic’s operational demands and to improve program productivity and sustainability. My work can be divided into two major responsibilities: testing and tracking. With respect to the former, I have been trained to conduct follow-up PrEP appointments, where I meet clients to review their PrEP care, including performing finger stick and venous blood draws for HIV testing and metabolic function monitoring. When not in clinic, I work remotely on tracking patient re-engagement and retention. These administrative tasks ensure all our PrEP Clinic patients are staying on track for their quarterly follow-up appointments and do not run out of their medication. In this capacity I also provide support in assisting patients with concerns related to their medical insurance coverage.

Reflecting on my time thus far at Whitman-Walker Health, I keep coming back to the idea of co-construction. I see this project of collaboration play out in the way relationships with clients are formed. While a large organization, Whitman-Walker describes itself as a health care home – a place free from judgment and power differentials where the staff is committed to seeing the person first. Critical to this mission is the act of standing by our clients’ side, and the act of providing an experience of care that is grounded in honoring the knowledge and the self-identified priorities of the clients themselves. To enter into the testing room, or, on remote days, to call a patient, I recognize the duty I have in creating a space where we can work together to co-construct a plan for how they wish to maintain or improve their sexual health and well-being. Operating in a health care setting guided by these values – values of empathy, humility, and vulnerability – is a privilege I am lucky to hold. While it has only been a few months, I can already see the ways in which my life is becoming enriched because of this experience, namely through a far deeper and substantial understanding of what it means to be an effective community member engaged in work to address health disparities.”