Being a southern gal residing in NYC, I always find a soft spot for a fellow southerner——someone that “gets” sweet tea and some good cornbread. And growing up in Atlanta during the plague days, I know how tough the struggle can be for HIV/AIDS services and advocacy groups. We are blessed to see all of the great work being done in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but our smaller cities and regions just don’t get that attention in the press. Well, let me tell you, when I heard about Shannon Stephenson at Cempa Community Care, I needed to get the scoop on how they are making great strides in Chattanooga, Tennessee! I’m proud to have met Miss Shannon and I want y’all to hear all about how this lady uses her Powers for Good!
First things first. Shannon
explained how Cempa started: “In 1988, Cempa Community Care received 501(c)3 non-profit status. From 1988 until 2002, Cempa Community Care primarily focused on social service advocacy, care, and assistance for those impacted by HIV and conducted extensive testing and education outreach programs. In 2002, Cempa Community Care opened the primary care clinic and began offering medical treatment and services directly to people living with HIV. This not only eliminated barriers to individuals receiving access to HIV treatment, but also primary care services to address their overall health needs. In 2013, Cempa moved across the street from Erlanger Medical Center. This location, in the hub of healthcare activity in Chattanooga and on a public transportation line, has increased access for many of our clients to both our services and the services of other specialists in the Erlanger Health System.”
I was curious to learn more.
Candy Samples: Miss Shannon, tell me more about Cempa Community Care! Being a gal from the south, I was surprised to see you’ve got an organization that does so much for the HIV community there in Tennessee. Can you tell me a little more about the evolution of Cempa Community Care?
Shannon Stephenson: While Cempa started as an organization exclusively focused on HIV and AIDS, the scope was broadened to include hepatitis C testing, beginning in 2013, and STI testing, beginning in 2015. Also, that year Cempa partnered with the Chattanooga Area Food Bank and opened a satellite market, the Cempa Food Market. This has allowed clients to have greater ease of access to health and nutritious food while also increase their adherence to their medication. Cempa is the first community-based organization in the area to offer pre-exposure prophylaxis, commonly referred to as PrEP. In addition, with the creation of the STI Clinic, Cempa has been able to expand its treatment of HIV positive individuals to include those infected with hepatitis C. In 2016, Cempa expanded its operations and opened a sister site in conjunction with East Tennessee State University Center of Excellence, another Ryan White clinic, in Johnson City, Tennessee. This new partnership continues to increase community outreach, treatment, and services regarding HIV, hepatitis C, and STIs in the underserved Appalachian region.
In 2019, the Cempa Mobile Clinic launched to increase access and provide care to the rural population. In addition, Cempa has now expanded to become a community health center to help all people fight all illnesses. Cempa provides treatment, prevention, and support services to those impacted with health disparities with a focus in primary and infectious disease care.
I know you have been addressing the opioid epidemic.
Yes. In 2018, Cempa Community Care took a bold approach in battling the opioid epidemic by launching the Syringe Exchange and Education Program of Tennessee (STEP TN). STEP TN is a harm reduction and education program for injection drug users and is designed to reduce the spread of HIV, hepatitis C, and other bloodborne infections, as well as, provide safe disposal of needles and syringes.
And what brought you to Cempa Community Care? What brought you into HIV care?
I was brought to Cempa Community Care, then Chattanooga CARES, in October 2015 to assist in the financial department of the organization. I am a CPA and have a background in regulatory compliance, public health and safety, business administration, and emergency management. I was actually a certified firefighter in two states, handled a canine for the Tennessee Task Force, as well as opened a rope access training and consulting company. I was running the family business at the time I became a consultant because I wanted to do more. My husband has since taken on a lot of the family business duties since I have found my passion and have little time to spare. This opportunity has changed my life in more ways than I can even describe. I have such a new and open understanding of the trauma and difficulties that people face. More than anything, I have a passion to be the change for our community and help our patients live their best lives possible.
Shannon, you’re a real-life Wonder Woman! Family business, firefighter and a CPA! Was HIV/AIDS something you had a personal connection to, or was it just something you saw out in the world that needed addressing?
The first day I started, the person who greeted me tapped into my heart and soul more than he will ever know or realize. I had the gut feeling that this was going to be something bigger than I could ever realize. After starting my position, I found out about a personal connection I had, too. They felt comfortable sharing after seeing my passion and work in the field. This revelation was further confirmation that I was at the right place.
You mentioned that you found your passion through the work you’re doing at Cempa. What advice do you have for others that have a passion for community change but may not know how to tap into it?
The first step to making a difference is getting involved. I understand that we are all busy with so many facets of life going on around us but wanting to see a difference is not the same as wanting to make a difference. Sometimes the best thing to do is roll up our sleeves and get to work or just be there to extend kindness and listen to others without judgment. If you don’t know where to start, call a local non-profit, attend one of their events, or you could always start at a local commission or council meeting to see what issues are happening around you.
What are the hurdles y’all face at Cempa?
HIV diagnoses in the south are higher than the rest of the country. Unfortunately, all the science, discoveries and health care advancements in the world cannot overcome the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS. Stigma is a dangerous byproduct of misinformation; and in many areas of the world, including right here in our own community, it keeps people away from diagnosis and care. Minority communities are still being disproportionally impacted. The opioid epidemic is creating new challenges in the prevention of HIV and hepatitis C. Behavioral health conditions are increasingly untreated or undertreated.
We have got to erase that stigma. I know here in New York City, social media has been a big tool to stamp out stigma. How is Cempa working to eliminate stigma?
I serve on the Executive Committee of the Regional Health Council Health Disparities Task Force and through this effort, we are attempting to educate the community about the misconceptions related to infectious disease. Cempa’s Minority Outreach team is working hard to fight the stigma surrounding HIV in our African American and Latinx communities so that the people whose lives are affected by HIV will receive the proper healthcare and prevention to curb the spread of the virus and increase their quality of life. Cempa’s team has found through first-hand interviews that many minority individuals have misguided or simply incorrect ideas about HIV testing, transmission, and biomedical interventions. By getting feedback from focus groups and partnering with minority organizations, we are creating culturally focused material to educate our minority communities about stigma surrounding HIV as well as encouraging testing and prevention. Through the Gilead Compass Initiative SPARK! grant that we recently received, we have the opportunity to create culturally relevant media platforms and events to better reach our minority communities.
Y’all recently expanded your income-based primary care services through your new federal status. How will this help your community?
We establish and coordinate preventive and educational activities for both the general population and specifically for groups experiencing disproportional health disparities. This, along with our designation as an FQHC Look-Alike, will allow us to better provide care for patients who are most in need of our services.
Now to the big question on everybody’s minds. One southern gal to another: grits or hash browns?
Smothered, covered, and diced. Hashbrowns for the win!
For more information, log on to: cempa.org.
Candy Samples is a singer/songwriter drag artist in New York City. She has released two EPs and several singles on iTunes and is currently working on her first full-length album, Bittersweet. In her spare time, she fundraises and raises awareness for many different HIV/AIDS organizations. She is a fierce ally to the HIV/AIDS community and encourages all to use their “Powers for Good.” For more information, log on to: www.samplemycandy.com.