Growing up in Southern California, Rachel Tate always knew that in some way, shape or form, her life's work would focus on helping others. A graduate from San Diego State University with a degree in social science, Rachel has held close to those childhood dreams. As a health education program coordinator for The Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center in Los Angeles, Rachel is challenged daily to create fresh and innovative ideas for programs that are designed to reach out to a variety of men, ranging in age from 18 to 70, who are at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Rachel may work for a religiously affiliated organization, but Rachel and her colleagues take a down-to-earth approach to their work: She leaves the judging to God, she says, and looks solely at the needs of the people to whom she is dedicated to helping. The target population for her work includes veterans, recently released inmates, the mentally ill and the often-forgotten population of substance abusers that can be found on Los Angeles' "Skid Row." Her programs successfully fuse HIV prevention with substance abuse treatment in order to empower clients to take control of their own lives and health.
Rachel's family provides her with a strong network of support that keeps her going when things get rough. It also doesn't hurt that she loves her job. HIV prevention "is a constantly evolving field." Rachel says, "so there is never a dull moment." She avoids the burnout that can weigh down HIV prevention and health education experts by taking to heart one of the very principles that her programs help to instill: That you should live life one day at a time.
How long have you been doing prevention education?
I've spent four years in direct services and an additional year on the administrative end.
Can you describe how your work has changed since you first started?
Having a constant presence in the actual residential facility has improved the collaboration between drug treatment and HIV prevention services.
How did you get involved in prevention education?
My interest has always been in public health. I wanted to do more in epidemiology, but I really enjoy what I do now.
If I were to follow you over the week, what would I see you do at work?
I coordinate a veterans program here at Harbor Light. I meet directly with clients, do two classes a week for men 15-25 who are in a social model detox program. It is one hour of HIV education and one hour of sexually transmitted disease and hepatitis education. I do lots of paperwork, reports, community meetings and, of course, outreach.
What's the best thing about your job?
The best thing about my job is the diversity of the people, both the clients and in the professionals. I have had the opportunity to travel to preventative HIV conferences ... the opportunity to see what everyone else around the country is doing. Plus, I love my clients. It is a constantly evolving field so there is never a dull moment.
What's the worst thing about your job?
The worst thing about my job is the constant struggle to find enough funding to meet the needs of our clients.
What have been your greatest successes in your work? Greatest failures?
My greatest success has been the unification of drug treatment with HIV prevention ... bringing the two together. I would have to say that my greatest failure, if you could call it that, would have to be the lack of funding.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a prevention educator?
The financial aspect of it, but also trying to stay constantly innovative. My target population is men between the ages of 18 and 70, so trying to approach them all in a way that meets their needs can be a huge challenge.
For the most part, what do you think is the biggest risk factor for HIV?
Ignorance and complacency! Seeing a whole new crop of young people that has had every type of HIV prevention class in the world and still do not think that it can touch them. They do not remember the fear that everyone else felt when the virus first hit.
Do you think that prevention efforts are sufficient? Anything you would change?
Never! There has been such an emphasis on the core behavior groups ... we must better classify and identify risk groups.
What is the most important thing you have learned from the people you work with?
Working in a residential facility ... we truly have to live by the one day at a time mentality!
How do you maintain a positive outlook and avoid burning out?
I have a strong family life and I make sure that I take care of myself. You have to walk away. However, the work is very rewarding because the vast majority of our clients respond to our efforts.
If you weren't a prevention educator, what would you be?
I've never really thought about it! But I'd probably work in some arena of the social services.
What do you think is the biggest problem people living with HIV face today?
There is still an extreme amount of stigma. As far as we have come, there is still so much further that we can go. And funding issues are always a major concern. It's hard just to get the basic needs of our clients met.
Who would you dedicate this award to if you could?
I am torn between my mother and all of the truly amazing people that I work with everyday.
Where did you grow up?
Southern California ... I have not traveled far.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be the Easter Bunny when I was really young. My family still laughs about that. And then I wanted to be a trash collector and then a cross between a teacher and nurse.
What kind of work does your mother do?
My mother, who raised me single handedly, works for the city of L.A.
What was your major in college?
I graduated from San Diego State University with a B.A. in social science.
What other jobs have you had?
I have worked in child care. I also worked in a craft store for a brief stint at 16.
Who were the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally?
Personally, the most influential person in my life is my mother, because she raised me single handedly ... never letting me know how hard she struggled. She always, always, always believed in me and encouraged me in everything that I wanted to do. She thought that I would be the best Easter Bunny ever!
Professionally, I would have to say the core group of individuals that I work with. They have all had their own struggles with addiction and gone on to do some amazing things with their lives in order to give back.
What do you do in your spare time?
Spend time with my family. I love to read ... love to shop ... and I am a big movie buff.
Do you have a partner? Pets?
I do have a partner, however, we are pretty private about it. I have no pets ... unless you count the stray cat that thinks he lives with me.
Where do you live? What kind of community is it? What do you like/dislike about it?
I still live in the same suburb of L.A., actually about three miles from the house that I grew up in. It is a quiet, family community, but it's alright.
If you had any place to live besides where you live now, where would you live?
Some place tropical!
What's the best vacation you ever had?
The summer before I turned 21, I went to Hawaii with my mother and grandmother. It was our last big vacation before my grandmother passed away.
What's the biggest adventure you ever had?
My first day working on Skid Row.
What's currently on your bedside table for reading?
Man and Microbes and probably some mindless novel that I read to escape.
What book would you say has had the most impact on you?
My interest in public health was probably sparked by a book called The Coming Plague.
What kind of music do you like to listen to?
Anything and everything from oldies to top forties, including hip-hop, but I'm not overly fond of jazz.
Anything else you think it would be important that people reading this interview know about you?
Other than the fact that I actually work for a Christian organization, that we do not actually get the recognition that we deserve for our work in HIV. "We leave the judging to God!"
Interview by Keith Green