Discussing sexual health and wellness with Stevi Atkins of Wellness Services in Flint

FLINT, Michigan — As prevalent as progressive and healthy conversations around sexual wellness have become in today’s social climate, many reports show that continuous efforts are still needed when it comes to increasing educational outreach to prevent new diagnoses and transmission rates of HIV across the state of Michigan.

Such crucial work is being done right here in the city of Flint thanks to the non-profit organization Wellness Services which works to address and treat issues concerning sexual health within the community.

Although an emphasis of care is placed on individuals diagnosed with HIV, Wellness Services also provides various resources to its patients such as PrEP (a combination of two drugs that prevents the virus from spreading in the body if exposed to HIV), food and medication assistance, assistance with case management, syringe access and overdose education, and HIV self-testing kits that are also available for pick-up or it can be mailed to you.
Stevi Atkins.
Stevi Atkins, CEO of Wellness Services in Flint, started as an intern for the organization over 20 years ago with an educational background in social work. Her experience serving marginalized communities shines as she speaks with conviction and passion for the very crucial work being done by those at the Wellness Clinic.

Flintside had the opportunity to speak with Atkins about her experience working at Wellness Services, the harsh reality of health disparities the Flint community has faced, what it takes to bridge that gap, and much more.

While May is known as Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s also equally important to shed light on sexual awareness and how both can intertwine and intersect.  
Flintside: Tell us about what ignited your passion to provide preventative health care services and sexual health services in Flint.   
Stevi Atkins: "I was assigned to Wellness [Services] for my internship over 20 years ago. I really had no idea what to expect. After being here just a few days, I was amazed at how such a small organization could have such a significant community impact. They were providing services that I hadn't seen being offered and working with populations that experience a lot of stigma and discrimination. I completed my internship and was invited to apply for a prevention and outreach position. I've held many positions over the years and each one gave me valuable insights that have guided me in my leadership roles. 

My internship and frontline experiences offered me the opportunity to work alongside people with lived experience who really wanted to take care of their community and it was inspiring. Donald Slaughter and Richard Hillaker were two of those individuals. They have both since passed away, but their legacies remain. They both taught me long-standing lessons around advocacy and the importance of this work that an academic education just couldn't provide. I will always be grateful for the impact they have had on me."
Flintside: Can you talk about some positive changes you’ve seen in Genesee County regarding STD/STI prevention due to the work Wellness Services has done over the years?  
S. Atkins: "I think what has been most impactful is the community partnerships and mutual aid that has existed to try and fill the gaps of sexual health services in Genesee County. Much of the work goes unnoticed and there really are very few funding resources out there to support sexual health services. It takes the collective effort of just a few entities to ensure we are doing our part to reduce sexual health disparities in Flint by providing services that are free/low cost and accessible to anyone in need."
Flintside: For those seeking treatment, testing, or preventative care, what additional resources are offered at Wellness Services to low-income individuals or those without insurance?  
S. Atkins: "Wellness has an array of no-cost services and programs. Our Prevention and Harm Reduction services include HIV/Hep C/ STI screenings, PrEP navigation, safer sex kits, harm reduction supplies, Naloxone, overdose response training, and we provide education and outreach in the community. We host a monthly Naloxone/Narcan training called Respond and Reverse to teach people how to use these medications to reverse an opioid overdose.  

For people living with HIV, we have onsite medical treatment, medical case management services, early intervention services for those who were recently diagnosed, medication assistance, housing assistance, transportation assistance, tobacco reduction programming, emergency financial assistance, and a food pantry that includes some personal needs items. 

Wellness staff are great at resource navigation so if someone has a need we cannot assist with, we do our best to ensure they leave with a resource list, community contact, or a direct referral."
Flintside: What actions can individuals take to create safe spaces for vulnerable discussions to be had concerning topics such as sexual health and sexuality?  
S. Atkins: "It's important that we don't allow our own bias to affect our feelings around sexual health. These views can further perpetuate stigma and keep people from seeking help. Educating yourself is also an important step. When we don't understand something, there is often a lot of fear and judgment that occurs. Be open to having discussions that might be outside of your comfort zone. Do more listening than talking. Ask questions when you don't understand. There are a lot of online resources to help you on your journey to being a great ally."
Flintside: Why is it important to you to ensure inclusivity and compassion are provided to all who come to Wellness Services seeking resources or treatment?  
S. Atkins: "Wellness was founded specifically as a response to the HIV epidemic and addressing the stigma that was created out of fear. It was important to our founder Jill C. Ramseyer that people living with HIV were supported and connected to inclusive community members who cared. Because the time from diagnosis to death was so short (often 2-6 months), she wanted to ensure people were shown dignity in death.

Jill operated a hotline, and a volunteer would be paired with an individual to provide both medical and social support for this person until they passed away. She also did her best to assist with medical supplies and items that a person might not have access to such as home hospital beds. 

As the years have gone on, we have continued to look at expanding services to ensure that our focus on programming for historically excluded populations continues. We serve many at-risk individuals now in a variety of ways and while this work can be really challenging, meeting the needs of our community keeps us moving forward. I think Jill would be proud to see where we are and that her priorities are still very much at the forefront of the work we do at Wellness."
Flintside: With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, what self-care habits or routines are you utilizing to take care of yourself lately?  
S. Atkins: "This is a great question! My focus has been to create more boundaries around work-life balance. I love this work and I am passionate about helping my community, but in the past, I haven't always been great about stepping away to take time for myself and my family. I am getting better but there is always room to improve.  

Our leadership team feels strongly about all our staff having adequate time away from the office and it's important that we model this behavior. So, set those out-of-office reminders, refrain from checking your email outside of work, take your PTO, remind your co-worker to take their PTO, don't ignore the warning signs of burnout, and ask for support when you need it."
Those interested in seeking services at Wellness Services can find their locations at 311 E. Court St. at their Prevention & Harm Reduction Services location, and 5103 Pierson Rd. at the Live Well Clinic. For more information on hours of operation and other resources, visit: WellnessAIDS.org 
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Read more articles by Briana McNair.