DeMarc A. Hickson of Us Helping Us — Photo: Todd Franson
“Us Helping Us [has] remained open since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says DeMarc Hickson, the executive director of Us Helping Us, People Into Living, Inc., a community organization dedicated to promoting holistic health among black LGBTQ people, particularly those living with HIV.
Us Helping Us has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by moving some services and programs online, while still maintaining in-person appointments where necessary. For instance, clients in need of HIV and STD screenings, which are usually provided in-person, will instead meet virtually with a nurse practitioner to assess their symptoms and whether they need to pursue a follow-up in person.
The organization’s support groups, which cater to specific segments of the LGBTQ community, have also moved their meetings online, connecting through Zoom or other video chat platforms — though that has proven to be logistically difficult for some clients.
“We have been seeing some barriers with our transgender support group,” notes Hickson. “Those barriers include one having access to a phone that will allow for the downloading of the Zoom app, or a data plan that allows for it. One of the concerns that has been expressed has been prioritizing the use of data or the minutes. So we’ve tried Facebook Live, but then others don’t have Facebook Live. So there have been a number of barriers that we’ve been working to address.”
More recently, Us Helping Us took its intervention programs online as well. The programs seek to educate and inform specific populations about behavioral and biomedical interventions to promote healthy living, HIV prevention, and HIV treatment.
That includes RAW, or Raising Awareness Within, a program designed to educate opinion leaders in the black LGBTQ community about the importance of testing and HIV/STD prevention measures, and the “Crossroads” intervention program, for HIV-negative gay and bisexual men, which touches on a number of heretofore ignored topics, including sexuality and sexual fluidity, navigating serodiscordant relationships with partners who are living with HIV, HIV stigma, and other sensitive issues.
To help vulnerable LGBTQ people during the pandemic, the organization has launched its “senior care kit” program, where employees fill boxes with materials designed to help protect LGBTQ elders from the spread of COVID-19. Those kits, which are care packages distributed every two weeks, include N95 masks and washable face coverings, over-the-counter pain medications, and personal hygiene products to help seniors get through the pandemic without having to venture out as much.
“We also include a crossword puzzle and a word find in the kits,” says Hickson. “Just some things to keep seniors busy. Because one of the things we’ve been hearing, especially among our seniors who are living with HIV, is a sense of increasing isolation.
“When we deliver the bag, we actually engage and try to have a five- to 10-minute conservation, just to check in with our clients. This allows us to engage with them, even if it’s from a distance.”
UHU has also begun delivering emergency food assistance packages, which provide about a week’s worth of groceries and personal hygiene products, to vulnerable community members. (Some elderly clients will qualify for both food assistance and senior kits.)
In total, Hickson expects to deliver 500 senior kits and about 300-400 food assistance packages by the time stay-at-home orders are lifted.
“Us Helping Us isn’t just our name, it’s our mantra, and we want people to know that we’re always here for the community,” he says. “And we will continue to be involved in the community, despite this global pandemic.”
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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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