“What brings you to the clinic today?” is one of the first questions Marlene Cabrera asks. The responses are as varied as the people: A 62-year-old widow says, “I’m in a new relationship, we both agreed to be tested.” A 35-year-old parent of three responds with anger, “I caught my partner cheating on me. I need to get checked.” A 14-year-old boy mumbles, “There’s s**t coming out of my s**t.”
Sensitive to the circumstances of each, Marlene keeps the conversation flowing: “Have you ever been tested before?” “When was the last time you had unprotected sex with your partner?” “There’s feces coming out of your penis?” (You gotta tell him, your s**t has a name.)
Growing up in Reading Marlene never imagined herself in a Community Health Worker role. Back then, she remembers, “it was just kind of like you’re gonna finish high school and then you’re gonna go to work. No real discussion of college or anything like that.” As a young single mom, bartending made it possible to provide food, clothing and shelter for her son and still be there for him when he needed her most. But as she approached her mid-20s Marlene knew she needed to make a change, to learn something that would provide some stability and offer benefits.
And then. . . she enrolled in a technical school that led to an internship that turned into a career that has spanned nearly two decades. At technical school she learned the required technical skills for the job. The lived experience, sensitivity, understanding and wisdom to do the work, she brought all that with her and has continued to grow it over the years.
“I’ve been in a lot of similar situations that my clients have been in, so I know how it is. You have to be brave to go in there to get these tests done and to tell somebody why you’re there, to tell somebody what your risks are. If you’re being honest, it takes a lot of courage to do that.”
“A lot of the people that I see that come to the clinic already got their foot in some kind of mess. I try to give them a little piece that they’re missing, to tell them that it’s gonna be okay and you know, life’s not over over this issue. Some people just need to talk, and as far as the youth, a lot don’t have that option at home. They’re going through changes and they don’t have anybody to express that to. Sometimes they feel shame when they show up because they haven’t been able to share these feelings . . . I like giving people a safe space to talk. I care about the people I see.”
“But it’s not always easy. I heard this expression, maybe I read it, that it’s like we each start the day with 5 gold coins we can give and I realized, oh my God, that’s exactly what it feels like. Self-care is really important. You have to know when you, alright, I’ve given enough today.
“I like being a part of the community that makes a difference. I grew up in this community, I live here, and I want people to be healthy. I want people to know they have choice and what their options are out there. What opportunities they have out there. You can change your mind at any minute and change your life at any minute, and go a different direction.”
“And I’m thankful to Liz, Elizabeth, Desiree, Jesse and Jason, for giving me their coins.”
This story series was created, collected, and shared by author nadine.
This project is funded by a FARO grant provided by a partnership between the Wyomissing Foundation and Barrio Alegría. Produced in conjunction with BCTV.
Logo designed by José Joel Delgado-Rivera, Public Relations and Marketing Consultant. A mix of threads forming the Pagoda, the Sun, the Trees, and the Schuylkill River.