With help from AmeriCorps, Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers benefit from an increase in staff

Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers was one of the organizations in the state to receive funding from Public Health AmeriCorps, a new program from the federal agency. AmeriCorps CEO Michael D. Smith, left, and Wisconsin Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes present a check to recipients. (Photo by Matt Martinez)

Ximena Vaca started down the path of social work in college.

She went to Bruce Guadalupe Collegepart of the united community center, a South Side social service organization. She then had the chance to volunteer with local children and provide mentoring services throughout high school.

Now Vaca is 21 and studying social work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is also a US Corps member and works at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centersa group of health centers on the south side, as a resource navigator in the department of social services.

Vaca is one of seven members of the Sixteenth Street AmeriCorps, but that number is about to increase. A new grant from AmeriCorps, a federally-supervised service organization, will help the center continue its health navigation work.

Vaca said she has seen her own growth through her work with patients.

“When I was volunteering with UCC, I kind of saw the needs from a child’s perspective,” Vaca said. “But now I can see adults and patients and the community that I live in and am part of.”

In her day-to-day work, Vaca helps connect patients with resources to address issues such as housing and food insecurity. She guides patients through the process of finding services, often reading forms aloud and helping overcome any language barriers.

“It kind of reminds me of how my parents were struggling too and how we struggled to find resources,” Vaca said. “There are people who don’t know these kinds of resources are available to them, so it’s a bit of a relief for me and for the patient and family to let them know that there are things that they can examine if they want.”

Sixteenth Street was one of the organizations in Wisconsin to receive a grant from AmeriCorps Public Health, a new partnership between AmeriCorps and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The goal of the partnership is to staff the public health workforce.

Sixteenth Street will receive more than $374,000 to fund 13 full-time AmeriCorps employees.

Michael D. Smith, CEO of AmeriCorps, said funding will be available in September when the program’s next year begins. Smith was at an April 29 press conference in Sixteenth Street to discuss the grant.

“I think it’s important to note that this new partnership (with the CDC) is where AmeriCorps can and should be at its best,” Smith said. “He addresses an urgent, living and important need facing communities right now while helping to build the generation of leaders who will continue to fight these issues.”

Erik Miller, AmeriCorps Lead for Sixteenth Street Community Health Centerssaid the current program began during the pandemic.

“It was a time when it was socially acceptable – and encouraged – to stay home and be safe, and they decided to roll up their sleeves and take a risk and dive in and help me build this thing from scratch to the peak of the pandemic,” Miller mentioned.

AmeriCorps staff will help administer social services, including women’s welfare, women, infants, and children, or WIC, programs, environmental health services, and community organizing efforts. Miller said the variety of programs allows participants to get involved in something that interests them professionally.

“Our priority is the people of our community, and we want our program to represent the community,” Miller said.

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