Staff Spotlight: Community Health Engagement Specialist Calvin Austin

If you’ve seen Mazzoni Center’s Mobile Testing Unit at a community event like Pride, or at one its regular weekly locations, chances are you have also seen the man behind the wheel:  Community Engagement Specialist Calvin Austin.  

As you might imagine, it takes a lot of skill and patience to command this Winnebago-sized vehicle along the narrow, traffic-clogged streets of Philadelphia. When you meet Calvin and experience his friendly and unflappable demeanor, you know right away he’s the man for the job.  

Calvin has been with Mazzoni Center for six years, and came to us through a personal connection. “I had a family member pass from HIV/AIDS,” he says, “and a few close friends as well, so that’s really what drew me into this field.”  

He had been a volunteer at AIDS Task Force of Cleveland, where he was born and raised. When Calvin moved to Philadelphia in 2005, he knew he wanted to stay involved in community service. A friend of his was working at Mazzoni at the time, and after getting to know the organization he applied here and was hired.

It may have helped that Calvin had experience driving much larger vehicles than even the MTU: his previous job, working for Delta Airlines at Cleveland’s Hopkins International Airport, involved towing planes from the departure/arrival gates to the hangar when they were due for inspection or repair.  “After that,” he laughs, “driving the MTU didn’t intimidate me.”  

Parallel parking aside, Calvin says the MTU is an important tool for the Prevention staff.  “The Mobile Testing Unit was the first testing unit of its kind in the Philadelphia area,” he explains.  “It allows us to get to some hard to reach areas and neighborhoods that don’t have many resources.” And it’s not just about testing, Calvin says, but making sure that people in communities all over the city are aware of the services that Mazzoni Center provides.

When he’s not working on the MTU, Calvin spends his days doing ‘street’ outreach with his teammates from the Prevention staff.  They make regular visits to local bars, bathhouses, gyms, and other locations, engaging people in conversation about health and wellness, encouraging them to get tested for HIV, handing out information and safer sex kits.  He’s also involved in our online outreach initiatives, which target social networking sites for MSM (men who have sex with men) such as Manhunt, Black Gay Chat, and Adam4Adam.  Calvin helps monitor the online profile for our Washington West Project, sharing information about HIV/STD prevention and testing options for MSM in our area.

Having the right approach to this kind of work is critical, he says. “Being non judgmental, and being able to focus on the client’s feelings are very important,” Calvin says. “Also just being a ‘people’ person and someone who can engage in conversations with individuals on why it’s important to get tested and get screened for other STDs.  I think you have to be comfortable just talking about sex, and the risks, and how to keep protected.”

Calvin enjoys the variety of his work days, and the fact that he’s often on the go, reaching people where they live, work, and socialize with information and services that can positively impact their well-being.  

He tells the story of an encounter he had recently, while doing ‘street’ outreach with a co-worker near our Center City offices. “There was a woman who saw what we were doing, and she came right up to us and disclosed her HIV positive status,” he says. “She told us how she had been struggling to get the medical care she needed.”  Calvin and his co-worker, Kamilah Clarke, were able to connect the woman to one of our case managers, and let her know about the HIV care available at Mazzoni Center Family and Community Medicine at 809 Locust Street.  

“It felt really good,” he says, “giving her that information and knowing that it would actually help her along her path.”   

For more information and a schedule of locations for our Mobile Testing Unit will be this month, click here.