Corazón Community Services serves the communities of Cicero and Berwyn – western suburbs of Chicago – with programs to support the well-being and health of its primarily Latinx population, including those living with HIV. With the Spanish word for heart – Corazón – in its name, the agency strives to reach the “heart of the community” with programs on health, education, leadership, community building, and violence prevention.
Offering HIV awareness and testing
While the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted both in-person and mobile services at Corazón, mobile testing returned in May with staff traveling monthly on a Friday night to two Cicero hotels to promote and conduct HIV and STI testing. Stationed inside a van in the hotel parking lot for four hours, Corazón staff members teach individuals about HIV, give HIV tests, and provide free resources, such as safer sex kits that come in a black bag with internal and external condoms, lubricant, dental dams, and a safety guide that explains how to use each item for safer sex.
Once a month on a Sunday night, the Corazón staff visits a Cicero nightclub for its evening of LGBTQ+ events. They set up inside the club with free HIV and STI testing and offer safer sex kits. In the interest of expanding its community outreach, Corazón connected with the transgender owner of a Cicero beauty salon, and this local business now provides safer sex kits with plans to host weekly HIV and STI testing.
Corazón refers anyone with a positive HIV rapid test to one of its partner organizations for confirmation with a blood test. However, a positive HIV test involves much more for anyone receiving that news.
“We need to make sure that the person is doing okay, and that they first advocate for themselves, for their mental health,” said Vanessa Melgoza, director of health services at Corazón.
For the HIV confirmatory blood test, “we ask which facility is closest to them or ask if they feel more comfortable going to their primary care physician,” Melgoza explained. The staff checks back with the person over time to ensure they are linked to needed services from community partners and Corazón.
Treating the whole person
In addition to providing HIV and STI testing, Corazón strives to help the whole person with information on housing, employment, insurance and food, including providing immigrants who live in the Berwyn/Cicero community with referrals to agencies that help with these matters.
“We are well known in Cicero as an agency that works in the community with over 60 community partners that promote our services,” Melgoza said. “A lot of people, especially right now with COVID-19, need resources for food. We can provide many different services for that population.”
Individuals without health insurance may not realize that they can obtain pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) without coverage, said Melgoza. The Corazón staff spends time at numerous community events with educational materials about PrEP, safer sex, and other services available to persons living with HIV. She also explained that individuals are often fearful of linking to health services due to their immigration status.
Beyond the online and posted flyers promoting its HIV services, Corazón relies on social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. “We even promote on Grindr and Jack’d, which are two social networking apps that many in our LGBTQ+ populations tend to use. I know they are grateful and they thank us when they come in for sharing information on those sites with them,” Melgoza stated.
To encourage regular testing for HIV and STIs, Corazón may provide persons who come in to get tested a $10 gift card, an incentive that they appreciate and that encourages regular testing. “We take a non-judgmental and sex-positive approach to HIV prevention,” Melgoza said.
Housed in the FUERZA Youth Center, 5339 W. 25th St., Cicero, Corazón provides various services and connection for many community members, Last year, Corazon served more than 3,000 community members with sexual health services and referrals and enrolled more than 1,000 teens in youth sexual education classes through local schools, Melgoza said.
The organization prefers individuals to schedule appointments for HIV/STI testing, but walk-ins are always welcome during operating hours. To simplify the testing process, Corazón will soon expand its capabilities with the addition of a staff phlebotomist to manage tests, such as for HIV confirmatory and syphilis testing, that require a blood draw for verification of the preliminary results.
Delivering peer-to-peer education to the community with health ambassadors
The Corazón Community Services Health Ambassador Program also helps deliver educational messages on HIV to the community with trained youth and adults who act as peer leaders. With training from Corazón, youth and adult health ambassadors work to improve health outcomes through community canvassing, public service announcements, social media campaigns, news articles, town hall meetings, testing opportunities, surveys and more.
“This past summer, for example, we worked with a group of youth ages 15 to 18 as HIV trainees,” Melgoza explained. “Cook County HIV Integrated Programs facilitated the training so the youth could become more educated about HIV and STI language and terminology.”
Equipped with this new knowledge, the health ambassadors went into the community to promote and distribute educational materials on HIV, STIs and COVID-19. “They educated the community in both languages, since we have a lot of Spanish speakers,” Melgoza said. They also presented workshops to their peers in Berwyn and Cicero, with other community partners, and at suburban events in need of a bilingual person.
Corazón recognizes that persons living with HIV in Cicero, Berwyn and surrounding areas need a consistent ally. “There really isn’t much of a support system for the Cicero/Berwyn community, especially when it comes to LGBTQ+ residents,” Melgoza stated. “We are trying to create that safe environment where people know their rights and receive more services, free from stigma and judgment.”