My passion for public health and the individuals within the AIDS community inspired me to apply as a volunteer to HIPS, a center that provides free services to marginalized individuals. I understood that HIPS was a health center of sorts, and I envisioned that I would be working to assist those in need, but I did not imagine just how unbelievable my time at this site would be.
Newly located on H Street, HIPS is small non-profit center, working to service the community of drug users and sex workers within the D.C. area. On location, they offer weekly hot meals and free clothing, as well as advocacy and counseling for their clients. The entrance of the building has been converted into a safe-space, community hangout, offering use of computers and a place to rest.
My workplace is in the level upstairs, where I provide research assistance to the business development department. Over the semester, my main focus has been to build partnerships within the community. Because HIPS is new to H Street, most local businesses and organizations are not familiar with their work. My job is to communicate the mission of HIPS, by drafting letters, flyers, and emails to the owners of these local businesses, in hopes of gaining their support and donation.
Although I do not interact with the clients of HIPS one-on-one, just being present in the HIPS center has allowed me to understand a culture and community much different than my own. As an outsider to this group, I have had to push the boundaries of my own comfort. Coming from Northwest Tenleytown to Northeast H Street shocks me every time, as I enter a neighborhood that is less fortunate than my own. Many of the individuals who visit HIPS are using it as their last and only resort, as they do not have access to quality health care or education in this part of the city. While HIPS offers quality service to the best of their ability, the organization is functioning off of donation and mostly voluntary efforts, making it difficult for them to provide assistance to all members of this low-income population.
In my public health class this semester, we discuss the health-wealth gradient, which explains the dramatically varying levels of wellbeing in different populations of the same city. This concept was only a theory to me until I began my work at HIPS. In the community of AU, we are blessed with generally healthy lives- it would be shocking to hear of cases of fatal illness or death. This well being is a privilege not granted to those in northeast, where cases of HIV/AIDS are common, and the life expectancy is almost 5 years lower. The correlation between health and wealth shows drastic differences in charts and graphs, but the inequality is truly visible when volunteering at a place like HIPS.
My impact at HIPS may not be large, but I know that I am contributing to a proactive effort to increase the wellbeing of usually marginalized communities. The work being done by HIPS targets not only the individuals suffering, but also the institutions in place that cause this health disparity, by challenging the laws that put sex workers and drug users in a compromised position. HIPS is making strides towards individual and community health promotion, and it is an effort I am grateful to be a part of.