AmeriCorps VISTA member Rennae Anderson joined the Behavioral Health Equity Corps (BHEC) in April of 2021. They have completed their service at Jefferson County Public Health and were kind enough to answer some questions about themselves. Here are some highlights but be sure to click the button below to read the full interview!
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I have a background as a medical physician. I trained as a pathologist, both in anatomical and clinical pathology. I spent the first 20 years of my career doing hospital-based pathology. I started feeling a calling about doing something with public health, more on the preventative side versus what I was doing, primarily diagnostic. I began to explore training in public health, where I could have a good impact before people were in the end-stage of disease. That is what took me to doing a Master’s in Public Health (MPH), which led me to AmeriCorps. During the last year of my MPH, I was looking for internship opportunities, potentially at a public health agency. My son had done an AmeriCorps service during undergrad, and he really enjoyed it, so I started exploring the opportunity.
How did you get into volunteering?
I always wanted to do something in public service, something related to volunteerism. When I was in college, I thought about doing Peace Corps. However, based on my family situation - we were pretty poor, and my college was all paid for my scholarships, I was pretty motivated to just get on with my career and start making income, which closed the door to Peace Corps. I eventually started my career, plowing away at it, making good money. But as I started discerning my calling to public health, my desire and interest in public service started to reappear. I started to explore opportunities to do some good, and speaking to my son helped refresh my memory, and helped me explore AmeriCorps. It was a great opportunity to revisit my initial desire to serve, to do something to volunteer my time just to do some good without worrying about being well compensated. I thought this was great opportunity for that, which is why I ended up signing up.
What do you most enjoy in your free time?
That’s an easy one. I actually love cooking; this is something I have been doing my whole life. I like trying new things, new recipes. I started exploring making bread as a lot of people did during Covid. Starting using lots of different nontraditional flours, like nut flour, doing recipes I did not ordinary do. I also started exploring cooking Mexican cuisine, which was never a big part of my experience, as I’m from Jamaica. I cooked a lot of what was part of my heritage, so branching out to making bread and Mexican cuisines with traditional spices is something I enjoy. I consider that my self-care, I shut everything out, and explore what can I work with today, what recipe can I try.
What advice would you give people considering going into service?
Well, I would say, absolutely do it. At whatever stage in life, you are, wherever you are contemplating doing this year. It is a good decision to make. I can’t imagine a scenario in which you jump into it, and you don’t get a lot of stuff back. It may not be what you started out expecting to get, but you always grow either professionally or personally. Particularly in a program like AmeriCorps which is about addressing poverty, you can always learn in the communities that AmeriCorps places you in. Do it!
If you could visit one place, anywhere in the world, where would you go?
Alaska! I haven’t gone to Alaska, it’s the one place left on my bucket list. I did have Greece and Alaska, but I had an opportunity to go to Greece so now it’s just Alaska left for me. I want to do a land-sea tour. It has to be in July, I’m not going to see the northern lights or the big dog race, as I think those happen in the winter. Whatever you can see in the summer months, that’s what I want to see.
What is one item you cannot live without?
It would have to be coffee. I’m not sure if that counts, but it’s an item to me. I had to do some grocery shopping this morning, I had run out of coffee last night, which is why I had to go to the grocery store this morning. As soon as I got my cart, I went straight down the coffee aisle, even when I had other things to get.
What is your favorite hobby?
What would you like the world to know about you and your work?
One of the things I have spent my entire life, not just my career, which started way back when I was younger in high school and is still a passion for me: I want the world to know that health is a balance of multiple things, many of them we don’t talk about on a day-to-day basis. My life’s work has essentially been getting people to understand that health is a balance of multiple things. It’s a balance of how work and life, work and play come together. A balance of learning how to look at what your life circumstances with a mind that is focused on gratitude, rather than what you don’t have. It’s an appreciation of time that you have because you don’t know how much of it you have. You should spend it intentionally, not just waste it. That is whole thing I want to get across. Health is not just about your physical body, but it has multiple components and is about balancing those components.
Tell us about your host site. How do you, as a BHEC member, fit into their vision of supporting communities?
My host site is a public health agency, Jefferson County Public Health (JCPH) Department. I fit in that space by being a part of the harm reduction team that does syringe exchange, provides harm reduction services to people who use drugs. As a component of that harm reduction program, the county had collaborated with Lakewood Police Department and another organization, Community Connections Center, to pilot a program called LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion). JCPH provides harm reduction services, as well as project management staff to this collaborative effort that is Lakewood LEAD. I served as a VISTA member for Lakewood LEAD through JCPH.
What attracted you most to work with BHEC?
When I first heard of the opportunity in Colorado, I was attracted to the location as I really wanted to spend some time in Denver area Colorado. I loved the idea of being in this place for an extended period, as I have never been. I was told about a criminal justice initiative that was being started at the county public health agency near Denver. The criminal justice initiative that BHEC was working on was the LEAD project pilot and I was interested because it was at the intersection between criminal justice and public health, and that got me excited at the prospect of making an impact in the lives of people. That’s what drew me to Colorado, to BHEC, and my specific site.
What programs/projects have you worked on? Please describe.
I would say there were three big projects. The first I started when LEAD launched in July of 2021, the community had to become aware of what was taking place with this pilot program. They had to get out the information about the program and be engaged with the rollout of the program. My first project was business and community engagement. We spent time gathering information about the different communities, and the different businesses that were impacted by people who used drugs and had contact with law enforcement. This program was specifically oriented to help people with substance use disorder who had contact with law enforcement. We had to engage business and other parts of the community that may have been impacted by low-level criminal activities by people that use drugs, so they could understand that this program was here to help. Both the businesses and the individuals benefitted by diverting people who are repeat offenders from the criminal justice system into intensive case management to help meet the need of the clients and prevent further criminal activity. Educating the community about this program was the first project I started, and that took me through September. We gathered as much information about different community associations to get the word out that this program was taking place and get the community excited about it.
The second piece was more so looking at the barriers to LEAD participants. We started by looking for resources, like cellphones and housing. Things that the participants could access if they needed to, that were already supposed to be available to them. I looked at how LEAD could provide low barrier affordable housing and we improved our grant request to include a housing budget pilot for year 2 of the grant.
Towards the end of my service, I started to get involved with developing trainings and continuing education to my colleagues and partners in harm reduction work. My focus was on the science of addiction and behavioral health interventions, like motivational interviewing, which were helpful to people who use drugs.
What impact do you feel these projects/programs will have on the community?
Well, I do think that over the course of my time, and just engaging with law enforcement, it is changing the way they view people who use drugs. I truly believe my time has made an impact. Just the consistent presence of someone who understands the biology and the progression if it, has really made an impact in changing the way people think about people who use drugs.
Tell us about the support you received from your host site.
They were awesome, I got two site supervisors instead of one. For the first 10 months I had these two people that were seasoned harm reduction workers, people who had a lot of experience. I was getting feedback every week, about my projects, about next steps, getting lots of encouragement to keep doing what I was doing. I felt my site was really supportive in the staff they provided. They brought me in as an intern, with the badge and the credentials, with all the devices I needed to serve. I was immediately engaged as a part of the team. I was on the email list for everything that went through JCPH, and I got to pick and choose things that I got involved in. One of the amazing things that came out of that was a group I ended up joining that met every month, Racial Equity Conversations. We would talk about things relating to equity and diversity in the public health world, and I wouldn’t have had the chance to get involved in that if I didn’t have the full opportunities of being part of the JCPH team.
What have you gained from service at this host site?
I’ve gained a lot of practical experience in how community collaboration works for community engagement. I worked with the 3 different agencies working together to do a pilot program, and all of those agencies brought their own baseline issues and had to work together to build this program. I learned how to do that, how to help bring people to the table, and keep people at the table. One of my site supervisors, who was awesome, the program manager for LEAD, was able to keep people coming together, even when there were conflicts. Despite conflicts, people really collaborated and worked out issues for the best outcomes for the participants, as well as for the program in general. I learned how to engage community partners and how to sustain collaborations despite conflicts.
What is the most rewarding aspect/proudest accomplishment of your service/position?
I was able to bring the experience of people experiencing poverty or vulnerable members of society, I could bring those people with me, I could make sure their voices were being heard, even if they were not in the room. I feel like I did some good, as most times people in those situations no one hears their voice, and I was able to speak for them in a lot of those settings.