AIDS/HIV prevention health advocate uses her job to fight back against the virus that killed both of her parents
Who is Lanika Mabrey?
Race / ethnicity (self identify): Black
Resident: southwest side of Syracuse, New York
Job status: Employed
Occupation: Prevention health advocate at ACR (Access Care and Resources) Health
Wage: A little more than $30,000 a year
Education level: Graduated from Le Moyne College with a major in English, minor in social work
Brief work history: Intern at Salvation Army, then manufacturing plant, then Syracuse City School District job for 10 years, then program manager/coordinator for Syracuse University Gear Up program, then unemployed for two years, then a job at Child Care Solutions, then a job at Citizen Action of NY and then transitioned to current job at ACR HealthNumber of children: 0
Number of people living in household: 1
A sit down with Lanika Mabrey
Q: How long have you lived in Syracuse?
A: I was born and raised in Syracuse. I went through Syracuse City School District schools on the southwest side of Syracuse. I graduated from Fowler High School. And then I attended Le Moyne College. I graduated from Le Moyne and since then have just been working a number of jobs that are heavily laden in funding, funding sources.
Q: When did you become unemployed, and why?
A: I experienced a layoff when I was working for Syracuse University in 2009 I believe it was. And that was a funding issue. That program was a program working in high schools preparing students for college. So it was a college preparatory program that eventually got cut. So by June of 2009, I was unemployed.
Q: Can you elaborate?
A: Just like a month before then (being unemployed) I lost a very involved mom to HIV and had no idea what happened. I wasn’t so devastated about losing employment at that time because I was going through something. It literally took almost two years to find employment and that part I was not happy with. With my experience, my degree and the number of people I knew in Syracuse and stuff like that. It just didn’t make sense to be unemployed for so long. And while I was unemployed I lost my health insurance. And then I was very much in the thralls of diabetes, so I became sick in the two years because I wasn’t treating my diabetes and then it developed into a kidney issue. So it wasn’t until I started to work again in 2012 that I was able to get some health insurance and get back on track with everything.
Q: When did the impact of losing your mother and job really hit you?
A: Once I started to feel strong enough to look for a job, probably six months into my unemployment, I was out beating the pavement. And a year into unemployment, I couldn’t believe it. I was like this can’t be right. I have a degree; I have a really solid work history and skill set. And it’s a small city, so I know a few people. Things just actually seemed to not work out and I didn’t understand why. You know hindsight 20/20 looking at it, I really did need those two years because the loss of my mom was very difficult. However, I was put in a position where I didn’t have any health insurance. And, I began the process of losing my mom’s house because I couldn’t maintain the mortgage. And the house was in her name and there were some will and some other logistic stuff that was going on. But if I had employment and could have maintained the house, that wouldn’t have been an issue. So, you know, that felt like another loss.
Q: How long exactly was it into your unemployment before you started to get involved in the community?
A: I think around that six-month mark when I felt comfortable going out and being amongst individuals. You know experiencing all of the stop signs and closed doors in the employment area, someone said to me, ‘Well you can volunteer and you can actually put that on your resume as viable experience.’ And so when I thought about where I wanted to volunteer, like I said I had my own personal motivations. I wanted to kind of step out of the shadows of the death and kind of focus on life. So I looked at the organizations and things that she (her Mom) was actually participating in. And, mind you, she’s telling me all of this stuff while she is doing it anyway. It is already like a seed planted in me from times past. And so, I approached them and asked, ‘Are you looking for volunteers, this is the skill set I offer, this is what I bring to the table.’ And no one said ‘no,’ everyone was like ‘yes, we are definitely looking for volunteers.’ It eventually got to be where I was working like I was working. So that was really good advice and translated into an actual job opportunity for me.
Q: What are your options for job searching in Syracuse?
A: First of all, maintaining the relationships you’ve had. Maintaining current relationships and people who could refer you, write letters of recommendation. That’s like the baseline of employment relationships. And then connecting with someone that could give you some good support with a nice solid resume and just like help you highlight the skills that you are trying to sell. I used the resources like CNY Works. I use them faithfully every week. They have computer labs and resources and a counselor that was supportive. And of course the relationships I already had in the community were very vital with finding out about job openings.
Q: What do you want people to know about what it is like to be unemployed in this community?
A: When I was unemployed, I first and foremost struggled a lot with self-esteem. People who are unemployed have to not only deal with the fact that there are very little resources — there is an internal process that goes on as well. I remember that, and experiencing it for the first time, and a person will have to be prepared to deal with that and find the resources and address that because it can send you into a great depression. So I want to acknowledge that that was new. But, like I said, you use the time to maybe volunteer and strengthen the skill sets you have and highlight the skill sets you have. And you got to use that time to connect with people that can connect you to opportunities; you got to be active in this process.
Q: Do you remember the specific organization that led you to your current job?
A: The relationship that led me to this job came out of Syracuse United Neighbors. I actually sat at a table with an individual; we were looking into bringing more jobs and economic resources into that particular area, which is like the south and southwest side. So once she found out that I was unemployed looking for work, she said, ‘Oh I think you might be good for our program to promote Obamacare,’ the Affordable Care Act. I had no idea that health care reform was on the way, but when it was explained to me, the improvements of health care, I thought, first of all I was uninsured for two years. You know, like this would have been perfect for me. I just felt a connection to that and I thought I need work. She recommended the position, which is a community health advocate with Citizen Action (of New York). I applied to that position and had the pleasure of serving my community for a couple of years in preparing them for what was to come in the Affordable Care Act.
Q: What do you like the most about the job you have?
A: I would have to say my co-workers. They are wonderful people because I finally do not feel alone in this fight (against HIV/AIDS). I guess what I like most is that I’m a part of a fight that took some very important people (mother and father) away from me. For me, it’s personal. I have a score to settle. You know, payback, in a sense. I’m ready to end this epidemic. And we’re at the place where we can do that by 2020. That’s what I like the most that I can kind of do a little payback to this epidemic for what it’s taken from me.
Q: What was your mom like parenting with her addiction?
A: Well no, I want to be clear. My mom was always around. There were times where I would have to make my meal, or I would have to get my sisters up and go to school. But my mom was definitely there. But growing up was challenging because the focus sometimes was on addiction and drugs. And you know, growing up in a situation of low income. I actually grew up with my mom receiving social services and things like that. She went back to school and became a nurse when she stopped getting high and using drugs. She went back to school and got her degree and actually received an honorary degree from OCC (Onondaga Community College). She was remarkable, but she had to work through her struggles like anyone else. Watching that, my focus was on her struggles that I didn’t want to go through. So what I did was I did the opposite of everything I saw in my house. And then I was very fortunate to have her, my father and family members that stressed education. Education was convenient because I could at least go to have a meal, see some consistent teachers every day, and have that support. That’s what really helped me to push through the challenges that I saw in my childhood that could have been pitfalls for me.
Q: Can you explain your day-to-day responsibilities at your job?
A: It’s impossible. I’m a tester, so I test. I do a rapid test for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HEP C (Hepatitis C). We have a walk-in policy, so we can have a test at any point during the day. We also do outreach, so we have targeted spots in the community that we are at for a couple of hours a day with a mobile unit testing on site. Then, it could be a series of trainings. It could be meetings with a consumer on how to negotiate with her partner on how to use a condom. I never know what the day looks like. But the focus is always on HIV awareness and risk reduction. Reducing the risk of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and connecting the resources, the plenty of resources that we have at ACR Health with the community we serve.
Q: Do you have any free time and if you do, how do you spend it?
A: This is probably the most uncomfortable question out of all of them (laughs). I’m just not very good at free time. I feel determined. I don’t know, I can’t really describe the loss of (my) mother. Even with her challenges you know with addiction early on, she was a wonderful mother. Very hands-on, very involved. We spent a lot of time together. I have, for the past five years, just been trying to find a new normal and figure out how to live without her. Even in those quiet moments, it’s difficult. That’s when people tell you to sit, relax. But for me, it’s a challenge at times. So working is actually relaxing, believe it or not. I’m not very good at relaxing, and I can’t believe I’m actually admitting that (chuckles). But not much time to relax. I actually enjoy what I do. So I don’t consider it work sometimes.
Q: What gives you hope?
A: We have some wonderful community members. We have people who will literally sit around tables all day, all week trying to figure out, strive for ways to make life better not just for themselves but for the community as a whole. And that always gives me hope. The people that I link arms with give me hope. The fact that a lot of these problems that we are dealing with in our community, there’s a solution and there’s a solution within our community, gives me hope. And then of course I have a mother and a father I think that are looking over me from above, and I feel a need to just keep moving forward for what I’m doing in their legacy. So that also gives me hope.