By Louie Marven
Thirty-five years after springing up as an all-volunteer AIDS assistance agency, Alder Health Services now boasts a full slate of services that offers wellness programs, a clothing room, and a food pantry.
Historically, Lancaster AIDS Project and South Central AIDS Assistance Network years later combined into AIDS Community Alliance. Then ACA evolved into Alder Health Services, today offering case management and support services, health and wellness education, and physical and mental health services.
Alder Health will celebrate its 35th anniversary this September with an event at The Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg.
“A strength of Alder Health is its ability to re-invent itself over time based on the needs of the community. THE 35th anniversary event gives us a chance to highlight and to celebrate our responsiveness,” Alder Health CEO Rosemary Browne said.
A wellness center at Alder Health Services had been on a wish list of staff, patients, and clients for many years. Everyone involved noticed a growing need for LGBTQ+ community members to have their own space where they felt comfortable participating in wellness activities without being judged. In fall of 2018 in partnership with Aetna Better Health, the Wellness Center opened.
Community members can participate in all sorts of programs and activities designed to engage their minds, bodies, and spirits. It is a safe and supportive space where individuals can care for themselves beyond their physical well-being.
Class topics are diverse, ranging from yoga and meditation to financial literacy, and nutrition. Alder Health sees wellness as broad and holistic, rather than just a chance to exercise.
Equipped with an outdoor recreation management degree, Noah Penny is the wellness coordinator. He wants the queer community to feel liberated, not assimilated. As a non-binary trans man, Penny strongly values the life changing and healing benefits of wellness and recreational activities that are accessible and enjoyable for all.
“We are trying to look at the larger picture of wellness, offering programs on topics like financial literacy, art exploration, and healthy relationships in addition to our physical wellness programming,” Penny said. It goes beyond what is a more limited idea of physical fitness. “Although you see our space full of fitness equipment, we say wellness and not fitness intentionally.”
Penny references a number of different ways Alder Health makes these programs accessible to everyone in diverse LGBTQ+ communities. “There are non-gendered bathrooms for changing,” he explained, “and two elevators as we are located on the second floor.”
“Historically, sports, fitness, and recreation spaces have been unwelcoming and often actively dangerous for LGBTQ+ people,” he adds, pointing out that “there is a lot that plays into who gets the time and space to focus on their wellbeing” and that LGBTQ+ people have typically not been able to find safe, inclusive programming like that which Alder Health offers.
And on the topic of financial accessibility, “we operate on a pay-as-you-can basis, ensuring that no one will ever be turned away for a lack of funds.”
“We added Wellness programming because the first health priority is preventing illness,” Browne said. “Our wellness resources reflect a welcoming embrace of LGBTQ+ individuals. We offer a safe environment to be yourself as you pursue your health goals.”
The Wellness Center also has a number of guidelines to help keep it an accessible and welcoming space. The guidelines include a reminder that “all bodies are good bodies, and wellness is about feeling good,” and expectations around respect, like taking good care of the equipment and not assuming anyone’s pronouns.
“Due to stigma, institutional bias, discrimination, and a huge lack of clinical research of LGBT health-related issues, our communities are often forced into a reactive approach when it comes to our health,” Penny said, giving context to the need for these programs.
Getting personal, he added that “taking an active role in my personal wellness… feels like a small act of resistance. We know that ‘they’ don’t want us to be well, or even here at all really. I think about the Reagan Administration and the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s. I really feel like a healthy, vital, and thriving LGBTQ+ community is resistance in of itself.”
Penny said that trauma-informed yoga has been the most popular activity since opening the Wellness Center. A lot of people asked for the self-defense classes that just started, and he expects that to be quite popular as well. If people have suggestions for other activities, he welcomes their input: “Anyone can reach out to me at any time at [email protected], I would love to hear what people want to see!”
Hunger is a problem in our country, and the LGBTQ+ community struggles with higher rates of food insecurity than the rest of Americans. 1 in 4 LGBTQ+ adults could not afford to feed themselves or their families at least once in the past year. LGBTQ+ adults may face employment discrimination and higher rates of being uninsured, which can lead to food insecurity.
“We believe in a holistic approach to health, and we know that food insecurity exacerbates many chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, depression, and results in poor health outcomes for individuals living with HIV,” Liz Leen, Alder’s marketing and resource development coordinator, said.
Alder Health is slowly building up its food pantry that will serve clients and community members. “We are stocking our food pantry with a focus on healthy options to reduce those adverse health outcomes,” Leen said.
“I’m not sure it’s understood just how tentative food security is for some people, especially LGBTQ+ people,” Browne added.
The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law finds that the queer community experiences more food insecurity at higher rates than non-LGBTQ+ adults. This is consistent with data that show LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to be poor and face higher rates of poverty than heterosexuals. Readers interested in donating can do so by visiting Alder Health’s web site.
Another of Alder Health’s services started years ago as a clothing swap and has evolved into a permanent free clothing market. The point of this service is for queer and transgender people to have access to clothing that allows them to truly express who they are, in a way that matches someone’s identity and orientation.
“Although not exclusively queer, clothing swaps are really popular in trans communities for a variety of reasons,” Penny said, “avoiding the uncomfortable store changing rooms, free clothes, and really clothing swaps are often all about coming together in community.”
“We have a firm foundation within the transgender community, here in our region and beyond, through our primary care services. Adding a clothing market allows for a dignified and safe way for transitioning or transitioned individuals, and other non-binary folks, to find free clothing that best reflects their gender identity and expression. And have some fun in the process,” Browne said.
Speaking again from his own personal experience, Penny added that, “when I first came out as transgender, I got a lot of my first ‘masculine’ outfits from clothing swaps, I felt safer getting my clothes in that environment, where I knew no one would say anything, and nothing upsetting was going to happen.”
The need goes beyond expression, of course. “In addition to gender affirmation and community, a lot of people just straight up need clothes, especially in these winter months, the number of people who come to get the clothing they need skyrockets,” Penny continued.
The clothing closet is overseen by Alder’s MPower project. Donations of new items are welcome, and currently there is a need for base layer donations, polyester/nylon undershirts and pants for enduring cold weather. Larger sizes are a particular need. To volunteer with the clothing closet, contact Sam Rynearson at [email protected].
Louie Marven wrote this story for the Central Voice, a publishing partner of the Capital-Star, where it first appeared.