by Troy Espera
Erica Reyes pops in and out of the main office of the San Francisco Community Health Center while the rest of the staff are gathered in the common area to watch a human resources presentation. She’s tall and her rich brown hair that falls past her shoulders brushes against her cream colored sweater as she walks. As a programs supervisor at the Tenderloin-based agency, she oversees a variety of programs that connect transgender people of color to culturally competent sexual health, mental health, and social services. Today, her workload has her on the move — setting up an upcoming clothing boutique for trans clients on the other side of the office, onboarding new clients in another area — leaving her with no time to sit through the HR meeting with her colleagues. But the work that’s keeping her busy today is work that she says she loves, largely because years ago she was a client here herself.
“To be working here, I really just feel lucky and blessed,” she says. “I was a client here for 16 years. I used to look up to the ladies that worked in Trans Services. I thought you know, I want to do that. I’ve always wanted to do that.”
Before launching her career in community health, Reyes says her life revolved around partying, boyfriends, and to earn money—sex work. But after connecting to API Wellness Center, the previous name of today’s San Francisco Community Health Center (SFCHC), she found a path to transform her life through its services for transgender individuals, which included leadership development, volunteer work, and support for accessing education opportunities. More than a decade and a half later, she and the SFCHC team continue to provide transformative paths for current clients in an integrated approach focused on the whole person. Reyes says sharing her own journey has become one of her many tools for empowering clients toward holistic health.
“So all I knew was sex working and going out, and that was my life for many, many years,” she says. “You kind of lose touch with what’s really going on in the world, and you’re like living in this bubble. This agency was what kept me alive. I want to be an inspiration for those girls, that they can flip the script. I mean, mine was not overnight, you know. It was a process. But you can do it. You just have to be kind to yourself, and just do it.”
According to SFCHC Associate Director of Behavioral Health Services Miguel Ibarra, one of the agency’s current pathways to community re-engagement is through its Community Ambassador program. Clients referred by Reyes participate in a four-week orientation that includes outreach training, education in community health practices, and exposure to field work.
“[We’re] supporting people who want to either try out working for the first time or try out working again, who maybe feel a little bit more stable, and who are ready to give back a few hours or a few days a week, whatever they want to do,” Ibarra says.
The Community Ambassador program is focused on COVID-19 outreach, promoting preventative behaviors and facilitating vaccine readiness.
“We take them through a pretty rigorous COVID training,” he says. “We give them like a COVID 101, vaccine and testing 101. We also discuss ways in which the health department utilizes health equity and sanctuary trauma, and all of these other concepts that impact marginalized communities. In doing so, we are supporting people in making informed decisions.”
If participants are interested in expanding their ambassadorship beyond COVID-19 outreach, Ibarra says they can train in Hep C outreach as well . He says he hopes to eventually expand the Community Ambassador program
throughout the agency, with the goal of preparing participants to enter or re-enter the workforce, perhaps to even join the SFCHC team.
“We’ve had opportunities to hire people as staff,” he says. “I think we’ve hired two people from the ambassador program..”
Reyes, finally taking a break , sits in the staff lounge flooded with afternoon sun to sip on a beverage. As she reflects on the journey years ago that helped her build the confidence and skills that led her to this career that she loves—the journey she now helps her own clients embark upon—her smile catches the sunlight pouring in from the window.
“[When] you go from one world to another world it can be overwhelming,” she says. “Once it was time for me to put on my big girl shoes and get a job and work, it was very intimidating for me at first. It just took showing up, and I kept showing up. I always tell [my clients], you can always come and see me here. You have nothing to lose. If it’s a hit, it’s a hit. If it’s not, it’s not. But at least you try. And that’s what’s important.”
Erica Reyes is now Co-Interim Supervisor for Trans:Thrive where she oversees the program and all its activities.