For 19 years, the Health Initiative (formerly the Atlanta Lesbian Cancer Initiative and then the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative) has been providing ongoing health care resources for LGBT people in metro Atlanta and now throughout the state to ensure those in need get the care they deserve.

And each spring, the staff and volunteers of the Health Initiative hold its Garden Party to raise funds needed to support these important programs—from providing support groups to breast exams to cultural training for health care providers to care for transgender individuals. The Garden Party allows the Health Initiative to continue to do the work it does while also celebrating with a party.

Linda Ellis, executive director of the Health Initiative, answered a few questions ahead of this party set for Sunday, May 17, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Philip Rush Center annex.

Tell us how you all decided on the Healing Angel Awards—Paul Plate, co-founder of Positive Impact, and the Equality Clinic of Augusta. Do these choices say anything about how LGBT health equality is moving in Georgia?

The board and staff work together every year to come up with a list of the individuals and organizations that we’ve seen have a great impact on the health of LGBT folks across the state. This year, the choices were easy—and exciting for us. The Equality Clinic of Augusta has made history as the first free LGBT clinic in the country. In their short history, they’ve already become a strong Health Fund partner and have had a great impact on the quality of care for uninsured LGBT individuals in that part of the state. Their free clinics (in addition to LGBT, they have women’s and Hispanic clinics), all staffed by GRU medical students and staff, set a great example for other medical schools.

Anyone who knows and has worked with Paul Plate knows that he’s an angel—we just get to celebrate it. Very rarely do we get a health fund request that does not have some mental health dimension.  We’ve worked to partner with local mental health services, and Positive Impact was an early and obvious choice. They’ve set the standard for low cost services and for quality training for new clinicians. Paul’s been there from the beginning, and his energy and commitment shine through every thing that Positive Impact does. It’s an honor to recognize him.

Congrats on the $26,000 in Susan G. Komen funding this year! How did this come about? What will it be used for and starting when/how?

Susan G. Komen has been a long time supporter of our efforts, from our early days as the Atlanta Lesbian Cancer Initiative. They’ve worked to make sure that lesbian women are well served in all of their grantee organizations, and have partnered with us to insure that is the case. They’ve taken that commitment a step further with our current grant, because they’ve wholeheartedly supported our efforts to develop breast health screening that rather than focuses on women, is inclusive of any person with breast tissue.

With Komen support, we’ve been able to schedule clinical breast exams and mammogram screenings days that are geared toward trans individuals and those who are masculine identified throughout the metro area. We’ve had many folks be screened for the first time in their adult lives. Several have found suspicious results, requiring diagnostic screenings, and in one case, a cancer diagnosis. Screenings save lives, and Komen is helping us make sure that everyone has access.

How many people has the Health Initiative served in the past year? Any stand out stories? You all also do trainings on cultural competency. How many have you done of those in the past year? How are those going?

Our reach throughout the state has grown significantly this year, both through our work with the Affordable Care Act and individuals seeking the support of the Community Health Fund. We’ve helped individuals from more than 25 counties in the last year, including the farthest corners of Georgia and some from neighboring states. We’ve talked with thousands of individuals at outreach events and our ACA navigators have held more than 300 insurance enrollment appointments, more than 75 of those in Spanish. Almost 200 people have sought Health Fund support, to cover a variety of needs, including screenings, dental care, and mental health services.

More than any one story standing out, it’s the constant theme that we hear of surprise and gratitude from the people that we’re able to help that I remember most. Our purpose is to be here to help connect LGBT individuals with the care and support that they need, whatever that is. The Health Fund may not sound like much—our current limit is $250 per person each year—but for some of the people we’ve been able to help, it’s literally been enough to be the answer they need right then, whether it’s a mammogram, or prescription refill or a new pair of glasses. And more than the money, it’s the fact that there is someone who’s willing to talk with them and follow through until they’ve found the help they need. We’re small enough that we can be flexible, and that helps.  We’ve also always had an open door policy—we do not turn anyone away. So, that means that we’ve helped more than a few straight folks who’ve been mistakenly referred to us along the way. And in more than one instance, they’ve wanted to reject the help when they learn who we are, but their need, and our willingness to be there anyway, wins out. It may be one person at a time, but the impact we have is tangible.

We averaged 2-3 cultural competency trainings of health care and service providers per month in the last year. Again for me, it’s the interactions with the people who start out opposed to hearing anything about LGBT folks that I remember most. Almost without fail, it’s a colleague in the group who’s able to bring it home for them, to put a face and a name on the issue. I love witnessing their faces soften in response. I’m not saying that they’re won over every time, but there’s definitely a new possibility there.

Some of our most exciting work these days in being done in partnership with Morehouse School of Medicine. They have brought us in to help them help the community based clinic around the state add questions of sexual orientation and gender identity to their intake processes. As more clinics are having to make the shift to electronic health records, we’ve got a great opportunity to have them add these questions to the mix. As that practice becomes more standard, our understanding of LGBT health will increase significantly, because we’ll be better included in the research and tracking of results. We’ll see direct results down the road, and it’s exciting to work with Morehouse to help make that happen here in Georgia.

How much money are you hoping to raise at the Garden Party? How many people attended last year? How many people do you hope come this year? What does the money go to? 

We’ve just about hit our host committee goal of $30,000. By bringing the party home to the Rush Center, we’re able to keep costs down and show off the wonderful home we’re helping to build of Atlanta’s community. It makes the party even more fun for me. I think we estimated between 150 and 200 folks last year, and hope to see that many again this year. The Garden Party represents our best chance to raise unrestricted funds, and that is particularly important for both the Health Fund and our training efforts. We still struggle to find grant funding or sponsorship dollars for those programs, so the money you give through the Garden Party is even more significant to us.

Can people still buy tickets?

Definitely. Tickets and host packages will be available online at our website, www.thehealthinitiative.org until Friday evening next week, and then available at the door.

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