Empower “U” gets $700K grant to expand health care in Liberty City

But HIV/AIDS and health disparities among Blacks continue to be at top of list

D. Kevin McNeir | 11/28/2013, 9 a.m.
For over a decade, Empower “U,” Inc. a not-for-profit, minority peer-based AIDS service organization, founded by people living with HIV/AIDS, ...
“Youth have this false notion that HIV is something to play with because of the new meds that allow people to live much longer as a chronic illness,” she said. “But being HIV-positive is not a walk in the park. And there are ways to avoid it — always use a condom and get tested regularly. Why do people keep refusing to take these simple steps?” Photo by Miami Times Illustration

For over a decade, Empower “U,” Inc. a not-for-profit, minority peer-based AIDS service organization, founded by people living with HIV/AIDS, has been one of just a handful of beacons of hope in Liberty City, lighting the way for those who face prejudice, stigma and even outright scorn simply because they are HIV-positive. Some say it’s that stigma, even from the hands of one’s own family and friends, that cause many to keep their status a secret — if they bother to get tested at all. That’s why Vanessa Mills, who earned her LPN, BSN and MPH, and is herself HIV-positive,

decided to found Empower “U” almost a decade ago. Mills, who serves as the executive director and her staff have since made a positive impact on the lives of men, women and a host of young adults — some who are gay, others who are heterosexual.

Now, after being chosen on November 1st for a highly-competitive $707,000.33 federal grant and subsequently being designated as a qualified health center, Mills and her crew can expand their services beyond HIV/AIDS, which brings them more in line with their original mission statement: “to empower, educate and promote better health care choices for individuals and families infected with, at risk for and/or affected by health disparities, particularly, but not limited to, HIV/AIDS spectrum disease.”

“The grant will be rolled out over a 10-year period and we have 120 days to get up and running with the ancillary services that we will now be able to provide,” Mills said. “We’ll have case management and testing, housing, preventive services and related services for women with HIV, young men who have sex with men, IV drug users, serodiscordant couples and those at high risk of becoming HIV-positive. This is major for us because while I’m not a prophet, my goal when we first opened our doors was to be able to address the health disparities that exist within the Black community in particular and contribute to the shortening of our lives. Blacks are disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS but we also die from illnesses related to diabetes, heart disease and various forms of cancer simply because we don’t have preventive care. Some critics may have negative words to say about the Affordable Care Act [ACA], but I guarantee you, in five years there will be nothing but praise.”

Dr. Resha Mehta, COO, Empower “U,” says access to health care must be taught, requiring a paradigm shift.

“It will be a new mindset for many of the clients that we’re seeing now or will see in the future,” she said. “And we know it won’t happen overnight. It will require us to change people from viewing the emergency room as their primary place of care. Now with the services that we can provide and with health care being affordable and accessible because of the ACA, more minorities will be able to establish a routine for their health care needs. And we’ll be able to maintain our client base and track their progress. We won’t lose patients to other health care facilities like we did in the past because we couldn’t treat them. Of course, sometimes we’ll need to partner with other centers, like Jessie Trice as an example, who has an outstanding dental program.”