An ASO in Orange County dismantles barriers to care
by Allie Oakes
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
I know all too well how precious good health is and how any support becomes vital for those diagnosed, as well as their families. Three of my kids have had years of mysterious illnesses during which surviving each day was the only focus. Today, I am still a little triggered upon becoming aware of details of one who has poor health. That doesn’t stop me from learning more, it’s just something I notice.
Yet, I was surprised by how moved I felt at the Gala held every January for Radiant Health Centers (RHC) in Orange County, California. Jonathan Sweet and Garrett Brewer were on the planning committee and invited A&U’s Senior Editor Sean Black and me to this night of delicious food and great entertainment. The theme was Mardi Gras Masquerade so I threw on a sequined dress and like all guests, I wore a mask. I headed to the newly renovated Yost Theater in Santa Ana, California, where ladies teetered on stilts while guests arrived. Jonathan and Garrett, whom I already knew and was so excited to spend an evening with, quickly found Sean and me and began introducing us to some truly wonderful people with Radiant. As we all entered the venue, we were surprised by the chance to pause with a sweet fortune teller, who tied in perfectly with the Mardi Gras theme. A terrific Dixieland jazz band played while guests mingled. We then entered the festively decorated theater where we had the pleasure of eating the best meal I have had in a long time. The Royals put on an incredible drag show. Toni Malone and Michael Shapiro also provided really great entertainment. Everyone was fantastic! RHC’s Executive Director and CEO Phil Yaeger gave a heartfelt and enthusiastic message about the exciting and unusual things already happening at RHC, as well as their plans for the future. He pulled me right in with his passion for ending the epidemic.
I eventually went to their location in Irvine, California, where I learned RHC was established in 1985 by fewer than ten volunteers. Today, RHC is Orange County’s “largest and most comprehensive nonprofit provider of services to those struggling with HIV/AIDS.” It was so compelling to hear Phil’s story of empathy put into action that hasn’t stopped to this day. In the early nineties, upon Phil’s visit to his family home, he learned their neighbor and friend had passed away. He was unusually impacted when he realized the cause of death was AIDS-related and that the man’s family cared for him without any support, purposely isolating themselves because of the shame and stigma. The father took early retirement to care for his son until he passed. Eventually, Phil was so bothered by this reality that he dialed information and asked to be connected to “any AIDS organization.” He found AIDS Services Foundation of Orange County (now RHC). He began volunteering the next day. That was over twenty years ago.
During my visit to RHC, Phil also gave me a tour of their remarkable facility. The walls in several rooms display beautiful art. When I paused to look at art made by kids at an AIDS walk, Phil described to me what parts of one piece represented and it was so moving I began to cry. The pamphlet I found reiterated Phil’s words: “The words on the outside of the mural represent the negative feelings about HIV/AIDS. The words surrounding the child’s body represent hope and protection that the children believe comes from knowledge and education about the disease.”
Phil also shared that RHC has created a printable card everyone can access. This soon-to-be-available card acts as a tool to empower one with the awareness of the necessary steps required to access PEP. It also acts as a tool for healthcare providers who’ve not yet heard of PEP and might otherwise turn someone away. I thought that was especially fantastic for youth who may not be comfortable seeking help from caregivers, but who truly need to safely advocate for themselves in a medical setting.
Allie Oakes: What did you do when you began your work here?
Phil Yaeger: I started with filing, a simple task, but also important to the function of the organization. I thought, “I don’t care how minor it is, I’m going to do it well, as well as I can.” The work became even more personal as I began to recognize names on files.
Then, since my background was in transportation management, they asked me to match up volunteers able to do food pantry delivery to clients. Within a couple months of volunteering, we received a grant from The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation for $25,000, half designated for food products for the pantry and the other half designated to hire a part-time food pantry coordinator. I was offered the position and was interested, but didn’t know how to survive part-time on $9/hour. I juggled my hours, took the part-time job, and kept my full-time job. I thought, “Give me six months of doing both and I’ll figure out what to do.”
Within three weeks, I knew I needed to be here. This wasn’t a dog-eat-dog-world. I wasn’t making some shareholder wealthy. I was helping people in need. Toward the end of that six months, another part-time position opened for a volunteer coordinator, and they gave me that role as well.
My career in the nonprofit world began in 1993. Over the next fifteen years, I was a part of developing transportation services for those in need of rides to medical and mental health appointments. I also helped with developing a number of housing programs including a twenty-three-unit apartment complex, built from new construction to completion. Today we house people who were once homeless and are living with HIV or AIDS and disabilities. The next piece we focused on was prevention, but for the first five years, we were really helping people die with dignity.
What did it look like to help people die with dignity?
Some people who were dying would be abandoned in our parking lot with an envelope pinned to their collar. Others were abandoned elsewhere. We trained volunteers, giving them the tools to [help clients face] the end of life. We didn’t want people dying without anybody to care for them. We focused on providing people with what bit of dignity we could in their final days. Then with treatment changing so much in 1995, our focus became preventing new infections and teaching HIV-positive people how to live longer, healthier, productive lives.
How did that change your approach?
We built up our wrap-around and support services, with the intention of becoming a one-stop-shop. We tried to remove all the barriers that would keep people from getting care and staying in treatment. People wouldn’t worry about getting medicine or a ride to the doctor if they couldn’t get food or pay rent. We developed a back-to-work program. We secured our first CDC grant and began providing HIV testing to get people aware of their status, and in care and treatment.
Our focus has shifted to ending the epidemic. We go to various campuses and tell students that AIDS has only been around for thirty years, and we can end it. We know that we can end it for a couple of reasons. Seeking treatment is a part of prevention. Someone who is HIV-positive and in treatment can get their viral load to an undetectable level, meaning it is much more difficult for them to transmit the disease to somebody else. Some argue it is actually impossible to transmit HIV if a person is undetectable. When we talk about being undetectable, we talk about the need to continue to use safe sex practices, such as condoms and other precautions. The minute condoms are removed from the equation, there is risk of contracting other STIs, which then puts you at risk for higher rates of cancer and other diseases.
What makes RHC unique?
Our family program works directly with families and kids. Some kids are infected, while others are affected by a family member who is HIV-positive. Weekly support is found in Kids Club, where children can access art therapy, and speak freely about how HIV is impacting them. Generous donations from various donors allow us to offer several activities throughout the year, including year-long arts and sports programs as well as week long arts camp at Camp Hollywood Heart in Malibu with other positive and affected youth. We offer our families a camp in the mountains and to spend time during the year at theme parks and concerts, etc. We partner with Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and usually do at least one annual art program. We just hired a clinical social worker to teach families how to effectively handle issues, like substance abuse, or dropouts, on top of managing HIV. We have OC’s only Spanish-speaking support group for HIV-positive women. RHC even offers yoga.
Again, we have tried to remove almost all barriers to accessing care, offering services already mentioned, plus counseling from our nutritionist and immediate access to tailored dietary needs at the food pantry where one can also leave with food for their pet. SOMOS is a prevention program for Latino MSM, ages eighteen to twenty-nine, meeting regularly to educate participants about safe-sex practices, HIV testing, and PrEP. They hold an annual event where participants compete in various ways for the title of “Mr. SOMOS,” the next Latino HIV Prevention ambassador. Additionally, RHC is looking to expand into medical services.
Phil’s humble devotion to improving countless lives is incredible and powerful when combined with the many employees, vital volunteers, and generous donors that have come together through many services to powerfully act as the heart and soul of Radiant Health Center. It’s a great reminder that together, we can improve many lives when we take simple steps in whatever areas move us to serve those in need.
For more information about Radiant Health, log on to: www.radianthealthcenters.org.
Allie Oakes, forty-two, lives with her kids in Orange County, California. Her son, Cooper, surprised her by coming out at sixteen. She speaks and writes about the radical transformation that occurred in every area of her life when she began to see the LGBTQ community through the eyes of a mom. As a result, she founded Made of ONYX where the mission is to better the lives of LGBT+ youth and their parents. To learn more and connect on social media, visit, www.madeofonyx.com.