METRO Health, Wellness & Community celebrates 25 years

By : Alexis Vilaboy
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ST. PETERSBURG – Twenty-five years ago, the beginning of what is now METRO Health, Wellness & Community began in the upstairs 16-foot by 12-foot space of King of Peace Metropolitan Community Church with the mission to help those affected by and infected with HIV/AIDS in the early days of the disease’s discovery.

“I’ve been here, it’ll be 24 years,” recalls CEO Lorraine Langlois. “It’s so gratifying to see some really good people moving up and taking hold; I’m very pleased about that. My role now is really kind of mentoring and making sure the ship’s going where we need it to be.”

The nonprofit’s early days consisted of two employees, one case management service, a small budget and some funding from the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program. Growth over the years, sometimes steady and sometimes skyrocketing, has led to over 100 employees and a $12.5 million 2017 budget that allows for more than just HIV/AIDS treatment–counseling services, youth programs, educational opportunities, transgender services and more are included.

“When we decided we were doing Medicaid only and went to Ryan White [funding], that opened up a slew of opportunities for us in bringing on new people,” Langlois says.

Times were dark when METRO first opened its doors, serving six or seven clients and not touching all of the $47,000 they raised through grassroots efforts.

“Every month there was somebody you were losing,” Langlois said. “A lot of our clients were from the church. Our role was to try to keep them out of the hospital. It was very tough.”

Langlois attributes the agency’s growth to the following of the path that she believed God was setting them upon. The team moved from space to space, bringing on more and more dedicated employees with them each time.

“Here we are now and [we’re] still having to expand,” Langlois said of METRO’s current construction project that entails a new health center, patient and client services and more. “Keeping people in good health is still the struggle.”

Even though medical advancements have been made thanks to antiviral treatment options, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still serious. About 1.1 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2015, according to the CDC.

“We’re still losing people even though they fight very hard,” Langlois says. “A lot of things other than HIV are still keeping people in care. We’ve moved to a mode of prevention and treatment as prevention. If you’re on your meds and being treated, that lowers your risk of transmitting the virus to someone else.”

Langlois says she believes the only way to save a generation is to get them on PrEP, a once-a-day preventative anti-HIV medication that when taken consistently, has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection in people who are at high risk by up to 92 percent.

“The mission when we first started was more related to HIV and being very supportive and trying to take care of folks [and] eradicate the disease,” the CEO recalls. “Our mission today is much more open.”

Langlois mentioned all the services they’ve since then adopted: treatment, support, education, prevention and LGBT-related services.

“It’s not just about HIV, it’s about your overall health and wellness,” she says.

These days METRO provides aid to close to 15,000 people face-to-face and thousands more via outreaches. In one year, the nonprofit serves 800 people at their clinics alone.

“I see it as, let’s get one more person in the door and make the difference,” she says.

To make room for even more activities and services, construction will begin this April on METRO’s St. Petersburg location, which will be an almost 60,000 square foot space.

“I’m excited, because the patient and clients will have services unlike anywhere else,” Langlois says. “All the construction and design has been focused on the patient. Anywhere they go in the building will all be along the windows, making it very bright.”

The nonprofit’s CEO says she is also looking forward to the construction that is soon to start on some lofts and apartments in the immediate near the St. Pete location because it will bring the community together.

“It will be exciting,” she says. “We want people to move in and we want our community to thrive here. We love that we’ll be the hub of all that.”

The community will have the opportunity to gather and celebrate METRO’s 25-year anniversary of service throughout this year at several events that will highlight the dedication of METRO’s hard working team members; including a celebration, the “Great Gatsby Gala,” November 11.

“I know the gala will be a huge success,” Langlois said. “We’re going all out for this one. It’s a big party. We chose November because that month will mark 25 years of service.”

Langlois said that METRO wouldn’t be where it is today without the devotion of its employees

“This agency from day one has been full of heart and hope, and the people along the way who have come through the doors, as far as employees, have been incredible and devoted folks.”

Jeremy Williams contributed to this story.

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