Why I Joined the Community Health Center Movement

Community Health Center Board members were invited at the recent NACHC Policy and Issues Forum to share why they are part of the Community Health Center Movement, why they serve health centers. David Otabor is a Board Member of Carolina Health Centers, Inc. in rural South Carolina. This is his story.

Why do you serve on this board? Let me rephrase that in a better way – what is your motivation for serving as a board member for a Community Health Center?

I came face to face with that question at the NACHC Policy and Issues Forum, a national conference of community health leaders. I need to provide a little backstory for you to fully grasp what that means for me personally. 

My mother was a nurse – an LPN at National Health Centers. She was well-loved and a valued member of her team. She was on track to be an RN. At the age of 10, I witnessed the heinous and violent murder of my mother at the hands of my father in a domestic violence altercation. She was 39 years old, with many years of a career and life still ahead when she died. The community of Greenwood rallied around my family and me. They also opened doors that otherwise would have stayed closed due to the socio-economic barriers my family faced. I was given the opportunity to be a Boy Scout, sponsored by a local Sunday School class. I went on to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. It was in that organization that I learned the value of community service, which still inspires me today, along with the values of the Scout Law: to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.  

Giving back to the community that gave so much to me is important to me. I thought that was my reason for serving as a board member – I thought that was all there was driving me until I attended the NACHC P & I where I learned that my story, and many others like my own, was the engine for the Community Health Center Movement. 

Community Health Centers across America serve 30+ million patients and the needs far exceed our resources. It’s easy to allow ourselves to become nearsighted – to only see the needs of those in our direct path or nearby radius. It’s easy to feel like what we do is only affecting our local populations. What I realized this week is that we are part of something much, much larger. We have the ability to make a difference in not only our community, but our state, and not only our state but our nation.

Finding My Voice 

 In visiting the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, I captured a quote inscribed on the stone wall: “Make a career of humanity, commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” 

One can make a difference in the world by seeing how we fit into the bigger picture, the bigger reality of the world. I see where I fit into this movement and its struggle. It clicked for me that this is more than giving back to my community; this is putting my trauma to work shaping pain, agony, grief, despair, shame, guilt, and loneliness into a purpose. Did I persevere through all that adversity just because bad things happen to people and that’s just the way it is? No. I persevered because God has a purpose for me. He makes me strong enough to bear the weight and the fortitude to smile in the face of it all. I have a tattoo strategically placed on my arm that says, “…and yet I smile,” a reminder that in the face of adversity, I will smile and trust in God to guide me through. The stars aligned this week. I connected the dots. I found my voice. 

Making Our Movement Stronger 

I came face to face with the question – “What is your why?” Mine began with fulfilling a promise to myself to give back to my community and grew from there. Health centers depend on 340B reimbursements to contribute to their operating margin thereby allowing them to offer auxiliary services like dental care, behavioral health, counseling, and services related to issues of homelessness, food insecurity, and domestic violence. Health centers also use 340B to support services related to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This is essential work, but for me it was life changing.  

During my dating days, I talked to my doctor about the medication, PrEP. PrEP opened my mind and eyes to the idea that an HIV positive partner didn’t have to be a hard no. When my husband Frederick and I met, he was very forthcoming about his HIV positive status. Thanks to the help of a local health center in Houston, TX and their collaboration with the Ryan White Foundation, he was able to achieve an undetectable status. I now have a healthy husband, who lives a fulfilling life.

In finding my voice, I discovered that I am continuing my mother’s legacy by furthering access to care for those in need. I am giving others a chance at love and happiness by furthering access to care for those in need. That is my “why”. That is my motivation – no, it’s more than that now… That is my mission – to honor my mother, to help others like her and like my husband, to be an advocate for the underserved. Advocacy is an integral part of this movement because there are so many who haven’t found their voice yet, so those of us that have… need to use it. 

Health centers work to fill the gaps in our health care system. We, as Board members, as patients, as members of the human race, need to fill the silence with our voice. We need to speak on behalf of those who cannot, those who are crippled with fear, guilt, shame, and stigma.

Finding Your Voice

I encourage you to examine the question posed at the beginning of this message. What motivates you to serve as a Community Health Center Board Member? What is your mission? How does your story correlate to the needs of a larger population? I encourage you to open your eyes to the simple fact that we are not just a small health center in upstate South Carolina focused on the needs of the local underserved population. We are part of a much larger and much more powerful movement that addresses the needs of 30+ million people and potentially 100 million more in need across this nation.