Luis Worrell was working in public relations in the fashion industry in 2011 when he learned he was HIV positive.
“I quit my job and claimed what little benefits were available to me as someone living with HIV. I needed to slow down, learn more about my disease and educate myself,” he said. “I enrolled in Alliance’s PREP training program (Peer Recovery Education Program). There I met amazing people who made me want to pursue a career in healthcare.”
Alliance for Positive Change (Alliance) is a leading multi-service organization that provides low-income New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic conditions with access to quality health care, housing, harm reduction, coaching, and PATH to Jobs—their peer training and job placement program that cultivates leadership and economic mobility.
Since 1992, Alliance has pioneered peer training, peer-delivered health-access services, and workforce development as strategies for HIV prevention, health promotion, recovery support, and economic mobility. With a widening lens that includes HIV, harm reduction, overdose prevention, and hepatitis C, Alliance expanded its peer program to focus on career readiness and job/internship placements, including intensive support, coaching, supervision, and training. Graduates of Alliance’s PREP program go on to paid internships and employment in hospitals, clinics, and social service agencies, and many remain with Alliance—where they comprise a peer workforce of over 130+ part-time trained Peers annually.
For people like Luis, supportive employment enhances their commitment to risk reduction, motivates them to sustain healthy behaviors, provides a practical skill-set for entering/reentering the workforce, and offers on-the-job practice, mentorship, and soft skills development (such as conflict resolution and healthy boundaries).
Luis spent the majority of the last decade doing casework and intake work across Manhattan for fellow gay men. “It was really important to me to be able to connect with other gay men in my community to educate others living with the diagnosis,” Luis said.
James Griffin III had a very different road to Alliance. A native New Yorker, James received his HIV diagnosis in the 1990s and continued a career trajectory that included stints as a flight attendant and telecommunications executive. He fell into a dark depression in 1999 after a lover, who had transmitted the virus to him, died. “I was corporate before, so I’ve had money, but I’ve realized that money does not always solve your problems, and sometimes can even cause more.”
James moved back to New York a few years ago, paused his career, and stopped believing in himself. It was then that he met staff from Alliance for Positive Change during a presentation at Amida Care in Fall 2019, and decided to pursue training in healthcare. What he found was openness and encouragement from the trainers and vocational counselors at Alliance. “I had always been in corporate America, it was do or die, you have to perform, there’s no human element, no one like Suri Medina, Alliance’s Assistant Director of Vocational Services, or Deborah Yuelles, Director of Peer Services to help you find your ropes.”
James decided to become a Recovery Coach for people who wanted to reduce or end their chaotic drug use.
“I didn’t even know what a Recovery Coach was, and I certainly didn’t have any assistance with my own recovery, but the people I met at Alliance were so supportive and they wanted to help,” he said. “I’ve told my supervisors I probably would have done this job for free, so the fact I can do this professionally is a blessing.”
He relishes the chance to help folks with career and life skills. “Compassion and patience are a big part of the job here. I share my story with them, sometimes that gets them comfortable sharing their story.”
Peers are inspiring role models—because they have walked the walk and can share their wisdom, knowledge, skills, and passion for positive change—and support deeper engagement of communities that historically have been disconnected from, and/or distrustful of, the medical establishment. Alliance’s career readiness and job placement programs contribute to a health-delivery workforce of people who truly represent and understand the communities they serve.
James has been mentored by Associate Director of Outreach Velia Hernandez since he was a Peer in 2020 before he started his full-time position as a Certified Recovery Peer Advocate.
“He has been great with calling people for telehealth and communicates very well. I have to remind him he has sick time, he has vacation time, but he wants to be here. He considers the patients his family, but also is very good at setting boundaries, and knowing professional ethics,” Velia says.
Working with and learning from Velia, James says “I started to remember how to be a manager.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Luis Worrell became Alliance’s Housing Retention Manager. “Luis brings his experience as a former Peer Educator to residents working towards their goals of greater independence and housing stability. Luis’ skills are a perfect fit here,” said Karyn Mann, Director of Housing Services. “He’s a great addition, respected by his coworkers, works well with residents, is the first to propose a pizza party when we’re feeling low, and brings a great energy to the team.”
Luis is proud that “I feel like I can always be of service here. This is my calling.”
Alliance’s comprehensive peer training, career readiness, and job placement programs introduce its participants to new opportunities to grow, and to be a part of a larger community of educators, navigators and advocates. Follow their work at alliance.nyc, join the enewsletter, and on social Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.