By Nicole Rodriguez-Robbins

How do you improve health outcomes in a complex, diverse city with a high-need population? One approach is found at Bee Busy Wellness Center, a community health center located in Southwest Houston, whose unorthodox birth was spurred by the unmet needs of an underserved community.  Founded in 2009, the Bee Busy Wellness Center is an outgrowth of “Bee Busy Learning Academy,” a community based non-profit.  Houston is incredibly diverse, and has one of the largest immigrant populations of any major U.S. city.  The city also has one of the highest rates of  HIV and AIDS in the country and is part of the 12 Cities Project, a  demonstration program  that is part  of the HHS National HIV/AIDS Strategy  Operational Plan to provide prevention,  treatment and care  in cities with the highest concentration of people living with AIDS.  The Learning Academy was founded in 2000 to serve at-risk populations, increase awareness about HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), provide HIV and STI screenings and reduce transmission by providing linkages to care. Bee Busy Learning Academy has a special focus on outreach and education among youth and over the years has developed strong relationships with teens and young adults in the community. Among the Learning Center’s offerings is an adolescent health education program aimed at youth and young adults ages 12 to 24 years of age focused on teen pregnancy and prevention and treatment of HIV/ AIDS and STIs. Through the Learning Academy’s health education and outreach efforts, Bee Busy has formed lasting relationships with youth throughout the community.

The southwest area of Houston, home to an amalgam of Asian, African and Hispanic populations, suffers from lack of access to healthcare and other basic services. Many residents are either uninsured or underinsured. As a result, people avoid coming to see a doctor unless it’s an emergency and will frequently forgo necessary medical procedures like x-rays or ultrasounds due to prohibitively high out-of- pocket costs.  In the wake of the AIDS crisis, a community health needs assessment revealed a need and desire for health care services, especially among those seeking HIV/ AIDs treatment and primary care, and the Learning Academy’s board  of Directors voted to form a community health center. Norman Mitchell, the Center’s founding CEO, continues at the helm of the organization today.  With deep roots in the community, Bee Busy Wellness Center has become the provider of choice for many young people and their families.

The center welcomes all individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality, or socio economic status. The staff is committed to making Bee Busy a place that treats patients with care and dignity and is especially sensitive to how people with HIV/AIDS are treated in the healthcare system.  Mitchell described how the stigma and lack of understanding of the virus is still a huge barrier to testing and treatment. He explained that many middle- aged and older men in the community had come to believe that “ignorance is bliss” when it comes to their health. They reasoned that “I’m healthy before I get there (to the doctor) but when I leave I might be sick.”  Busy Bee works to change the culture of health in the community and to convince patients that being educated about their health and managing their conditions will lead to positive health outcomes and better quality of life.  Bee Busy seeks to empower patients to take control over their own health and to learn to recognize red flags that may signal an underlying medical issue.  Mitchell invoked a common refrain he’d heard from his mother, “tell me and I may forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”  For patients suffering from chronic health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, hepatitis or HIV/AIDS, Bee Busy providers stress the importance of medication management, nutritious diet and lifestyle.

One woman who sought services last year is a great example of the health center’s approach and success.  Recently relocated from another state with her three children, this woman was homeless, living in her car and HIV positive.  Her state of mind was one of desperation and despair.  At Bee Busy, she received medical treatment and was linked with a case manager who helped place her family in a temporary shelter. With agency support, she eventually secured permanent housing and she and her family moved into their own apartment.  She is now engaged and her partner has also become a patient at Bee Busy, where he receives PREP, a daily medication that prevents HIV infection for individuals at risk for exposure. A single visit to Bee Busy was life changing for this woman and her family.

Her story exemplifies the unique and special role Bee Busy Wellness Center plays in the community and it is stories like this that motivate and inspire Mitchell and the health center staff. The Center’s approach goes beyond just providing basic medical care and caters to the specific needs of each individual who walks through their doors.  Like all mission-driven community health centers, Bee Busy understands that social determinants of health including housing, access to social services and economic stressors are just as detrimental as the lack of medical care.  “It’s not a sterile environment at Bee Busy, this is your community health center,” said Mitchell.  In other words the health center belongs to the community it serves. Bee Busy confronts unique challenges with compassion and creativity and will continue to evolve to best serve their community.