Ximena Vaca started on the path toward social work back in middle school.
She went to Bruce-Guadalupe Middle School, part of the United Community Center, a social services organization on the South Side. Then she had the chance to volunteer with local kids and provide mentoring services throughout high school.
Now, Vaca is 21 and a junior studying social work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She also is an AmeriCorps member and works at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, a group of health centers on the South Side, as a resource navigator in the social services department.
Vaca is one of seven AmeriCorps members at Sixteenth Street now, but that number is about to increase. New grant funding from AmeriCorps, a service organization overseen by the federal government, will help the center continue its health navigation work.
Vaca said she’s seen her own growth through her work with patients.
“When I was volunteering with UCC, I kind of saw the needs from a child’s perspective,” Vaca said. “But now I get to see adults and patients and the community that I live in and I’m part of.”
In her day-to-day work, Vaca helps patients connect with resources to address concerns like housing and food insecurity. She walks patients through the process to find services, often reading the forms aloud and helping to bridge any language barrier.
“It kind of reminds me of how my parents used to struggle, too, and how we were struggling to find resources,” Vaca said. “There (are) people that don’t know that these types of resources are available to them, so it’s kind of a relief for me and for the patient and their families to let them know that there are things they can look into if they want to.”
Sixteenth Street was one of the organizations in Wisconsin that received grant funding from Public Health AmeriCorps, a new partnership between AmeriCorps and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The goal of the partnership is to provide staff for the public health workforce.
Sixteenth Street will receive over $374,000 to fund 13 full-time AmeriCorps staffers.
Michael D. Smith, CEO of AmeriCorps, said the funding will be available in September when the next term year for the program begins. Smith was at a news conference on April 29 at Sixteenth Street to discuss the grant.
“I think it’s important to note this new partnership (with the CDC) is what AmeriCorps can and should be at its best,” Smith said. “It is meeting an urgent, live, important need that communities are facing right now while also helping to build up the generation of leaders that’s going to continue to work against these issues.”
Erik Miller, AmeriCorps manager for Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, said the current program began during the pandemic.
“This is a time when it was socially acceptable — and encouraged — to stay home and be safe, and they decided to roll their sleeves up and take a risk and dive in and help me build this thing from scratch at peak pandemic,” Miller said.
The AmeriCorps staff will help administer social services, including women’s wellness, Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, programs, environmental health services and community organizing efforts. Miller said the variety of programs allows participants to get involved with something they’re interested in professionally.
“Our priority is people from our community, and we want our program to represent the community,” Miller said.