I recently visited Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (PPRM), where President & CEO Vicki Cowart and her amazing team showed me how they are providing life-changing, life-saving care at 24 health centers in Colorado, Southern Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
After touring PPRM’s Stapleton health center and meeting their amazing staff, Vicki took me to visit The Drop, PPRM’s HIV testing center in central Denver. Planned Parenthood is one of the nation’s largest providers of HIV/AIDS testing, and last year our health centers provided more than 740,000 HIV tests. During my visit to The Drop, I witnessed how dedicated PPRM is to not only providing HIV/AIDS testing and services, but also reducing stigma, breaking down barriers, and cementing themselves as a trusted resource in their community.
The Drop offers free HIV testing and a community space that can be used for sexual education courses, group discussions, social nights and PrEP navigation meetings. The Drop is more than just a health care facility - it’s a community hub, a homebase, and somewhere to turn for care, resources, and fun. Director of HIV Programs, Martin Walker, spoke with me about PPRM’s work to prevent, test for, and treat HIV/AIDS, as well as educate and reduce stigma within the community. Martin’s team uses a heat map to identify areas of Denver where people are at greatest risk of contracting HIV. Within those high-risk areas, testing is provided at bars, community centers, or other types of gathering locations. In some occasions, PPRM sets up a “pop-up Planned Parenthood” to conduct the testing. “People go to the high-risk areas in the community. They may not go to a Planned Parenthood, or they may not know where we are,” they told me. This is a core tenet of public health and something I’m seeing across the country during my travels - that we must meet people with the care they need, where they are.
Much of the success of The Drop can be attributed to the program’s HIV Program Specialists, who are trusted messengers who know what their communities need. They can speak to the needs of the people around them, because they are a part of the community and have many of the same lived experiences. Theariale StCyr is a well known drag queen in Denver, Felony Misdemeanor. “I use my performances as a platform to encourage people to get tested,” she said. Theariale mostly encounters younger people, under age 25, when performing. “Most people in these communities have had bad experiences -- I’ve had bad experiences!” she said, “When we’re able to connect with them, on their level as a peer or mentor, we can bring them in for the services they need.”
Colorado HIV Program Specialist Pauly Maldonado works at the Swing Club on the weekends. “It allows me to break the barrier around our services by talking about it, normalizing it, and giving people the option to seek prevention or treatment,” he explained.
During my trip I was really touched by something Vicki told me. At the end of every visit, patients are asked if they would like to give back to help keep PPRM’s doors open. This past year, PPRM’s generous patients donated nearly $200,000. After meeting with Vicki, Martin, Theariale, Pauly, and the rest of the PPRM team, this doesn’t surprise me, but it does impress me. It’s a true testament of the high quality, compassionate care PPRM provides every day.