Changing times and needs led Cempa Community Care — formerly Chattanooga CARES — to evolve from HIV/AIDS educator in the 1980s to a champion of healthy communities today.
Not only is HIV no longer a death sentence, eradication is possible thanks to new drugs that suppress the virus to the point it's undetectable and ones for high-risk individuals that greatly reduce the chance of contracting the disease. At the same time, new challenges — such as the opioid crisis — meant the longstanding nonprofit needed to expand its focus and outreach in order to better serve clients and reach new ones, said CEO Shannon Stephenson.
"Our vision is to lead the cultural movement to prevent and cure infectious disease," Stephenson says. "So if we wanted to lead and be on the forefront of ending the HIV epidemic, we had to look at restructuring."
The new name, "Cempa," comes from the old English word for champion and reflects the organization's mission: to champion healthy communities through compassionate and responsive delivery of education, health, social and advocacy-related services.
Cempa offers free STD testing, free treatment and support to anyone age 15 and over, as well as operating a syringe exchange program, mobile clinic and providing transportation, housing and nutrition assistance.
HIV and other STD testing at Cempa is done without drawing blood — eliminating a common aversion to getting tested — and results are ready in 20 minutes. People who test positive leave that day on medication, which means HIV viral loads are suppressed sooner, further helping to prevent disease spread and removing the barrier of having to take multiple trips to the clinic. They're also given access to free primary care, case management and behavioral health services.
"We're looking at a viral load suppression within three weeks," Stephenson says. "Most people don't know if you're on medication and you're virally suppressed, you no longer transmit the virus to others, which is huge."
Stephson attributes Cempa's success to the staff and their attitudes.
* Accomplishments: Non-profit formed to fight AIDs evolves to fight and prevent all infectious diseases and champion healthy communities.
"We do not judge people who walk through our doors. We meet them where they are," she said.
A large part of the effort involves outreach in underserved communities that are disproportionately impacted by disease.
In July, Cempa rolled out its new mobile clinic to take its services to rural communities across southeast Tennessee, while LaDarius Price, Cempa's community outreach manager, has worked to bridge gaps in minority communities.
"We are constantly working to build relationships and gain trust," Price said. "There is still a lack of knowledge and miseducation when it comes to HIV. We have to remove this barrier, because it's keeping so many people bound."
Price says "love is the greatest barrier remover" and by allowing him to enter a "laboratory of outreach," Cempa has enabled him to think outside of the box and produce something cutting edge. This year, Cempa spearheaded a Faith-Based Health and Wellness Council to address health disparities, hosted a symposium for those churches, helped conduct free workout sessions in underserved areas and partnered with local high schools' future-ready institutes for Medical Vision Days.
"My position has evolved in a way that I'm not just an HIV educator of minorities but a leader of health care for those that look like myself," he said. "Our dream is to truly team up with others in making our community healthy on every front. We believe that dream can be our reality."
Tickets to the Champions of Health Care Awards luncheon on Wednesday, Sept. 4, at The Westin, are available at this link.