Vanessa Mills: fulfilling a personal mission
Vanessa Mills, executive director, Empower “U,” a community health center in Miami.
(The second of four profiles about the 2015 Heroes in the Struggle awardees)
Although some may view a chronic illness as a hardship, Vanessa Mills, founder and chief executive officer of Empower “U”, Inc., a federally qualified health center in Miami, sees it as a pathway to purpose.
“It was by no accident that I became infected with HIV,” Mills says of her diagnosis in 1991. She believes that every person has a reason for being on this planet, and hers is to make life better for people living with the disease.
She first started on that path 40 years ago as a nurse in the 1980s, when she fed and bathed an AIDS patient while other hospital staff members went out of their way to shun him. “People would go in and half make his bed and shove his tray in front of him,” she says. “He was a human being to me.”
She now knows that the experience was laying the ground-work for her life’s work. “Little did I know, God was preparing me for my own infection,” she says.
Heeding the Call
After Mills was diagnosed, she joined the Miami-Dade HIV/AIDS Partnership in 1995, and it was there that she met a woman, Petra Johnson, who would become her best friend. The two women realized that their circumstances were different from those of some of the other people who were advocating for PLWHA. “I said to Petra, all of these people go home and they can leave HIV at the table,” Mills recalls. “But you and I have to live with HIV 24 hours a day.” They understood that there was something special about people with HIV helping other people with HIV, and that’s what they set out to do.
Empower “U” was the result of that collaboration. Incorporated in 1999, the organization began to make a name for itself as a place that catered to those you might find out on the streets late at night, exchanging sex for drugs, according to Mills. Empower “U” staff would go out on those streets and meet people where they were. “Other agencies in Miami Dade County began to refer clients to us that they could not retain and care for,” Mills says.
Although Johnson has since passed away, the experience of losing her best friend and col-league gave Mills even more insight into what it would take to do battle with HIV. Johnson did not take medication consistently, and Mills believes that this had a negative impact on her friend’s health. “If we get people in treatment and make sure they are adherent, we can see an endgame to the epidemic,” Mills says.
Creating Healthier Communities
Today Empower “U” offers primary care services, women’s health care, nutritional counseling, and mental-health and substance-abuse services, in addition to HIV screening and linkage to care. “HIV was the health disparity that slammed me in the face, but that’s not our only health disparity,” she says. The Black community is also disproportionately affected by such diseases as cancer, diabetes and hypertension, she points out.
At 59, the grandmother of three is also an advocate for the “Well Beyond HIV” campaign, an initiative launched by Walgreens to showcase people ages 50 and over who are living full and normal lives with HIV. “More than 50 percent of the population living with HIV will be in their 50s this year,” Mills says.
Last year the United Way of Miami Dade County awarded Mills the Monsignor Walsh Outstanding Human Services Professional Award, which recognizes those who have shown career dedication to helping others. And Mills has no plans of stopping her work anytime soon. In fact, she only sees her job getting bigger.
“One hundred years from now, I want to look down from heaven and see Empower ‘U’ community health centers,” she says. “I want to take this model and replicate it in other communities.”
Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.