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Meet Philip Yaeger of Radiant Health Centers in Irvine and Santa Ana

Today we’d like to introduce you to Philip Yaeger.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I first got involved as a volunteer with AIDS Services Foundation Orange County, which was our organization’s name for its first 32 years. In 1993, a family friend had suddenly passed away from a lung infection that I realized was caused by AIDS. Because of the stigma, our friends had to go through this ordeal without the support of friends and the community. I wanted to do something about this and make a difference for people with AIDS and their families and loved ones.

This was before the Internet, so I actually called 411 and asked the operator to connect me with an AIDS organization where I could volunteer! Within a few months of volunteering, I knew I had found my passion and took an opportunity to work part-time as their food pantry coordinator.

There was only one problem. I still had a full-time job in the for-profit world! I knew I would have to make a choice and gave myself six months. Well, after three weeks at ASF, I realized that this was where I wanted to spend my time and devote my career. I haven’t looked back since.

Over the next 15 years, I held a number of different positions in the organization which allowed me to be involved in the development of its nutrition, housing, transportation, and prevention and health education programs. I moved into the CEO role 10 years ago.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I have experienced many challenges over the past 25 years.

When I first started my work in HIV/AIDS support and outreach, it was before today’s major advancements in medical treatments and antiviral medications such as protease inhibitors. In the 1990s, we were losing people in Orange County at an average of one per day. Sometimes, I would come in on a Monday morning and there would be 10 or 15 messages from families who had lost a loved one over the weekend. That was extremely difficult for everyone who worked here.

As the face of AIDS began to change, another challenge for us was to pivot our services to address homelessness and substance abuse among those with HIV or at risk for HIV. We had to work to keep our original supporters and donors onboard during this period too. Initially, our clients had been their friends and neighbors, but the risk groups for HIV have changed over the years and we go where we need to go to get our goal of zero new HIV transmissions in Orange County.

Many people are shocked to learn that there are about six new HIV cases each week in Orange County.
There is a perception that HIV is a manageable disease so it mustn’t be a chronic public health issue anymore. That is wrong. The public health implications of HIV can’t be overstated. Because it’s a communicable disease, it’s a lot different than diabetes, which can’t be spread from person to person. Many people living with HIV can have no idea that they have it and spread the virus to others without knowing it too. That’s why we preach “know your status” and “get tested.”

The challenge that I wish I could say had gone away is a stigma. Stigma is still very much a factor for people living with HIV/AIDS. And it continues to get in the way of our work to stop HIV at Radiant Health Centers. Our free HIV testing services are always available to people on a confidential basis but some people will avoid testing because they’re so scared of having HIV and being labeled with it. Stigma also prevents people from talking about HIV and AIDS — and with six new HIV cases each week in Orange County, we need to talk about it as the public health issue that it is.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
Radiant Health Centers is the largest and most comprehensive HIV/AIDS organization in Orange County. I’m extremely proud of the continuum of care we provide our clients. We’ve created a one-stop shop where a person can get tested, get immediate counseling and access all of the services they need in one place. That includes case management, help to access medications and medical care, food pantry, housing assistance, transportation to and from appointments, peer support, and a kids and families program.

I’m also extremely proud of the consistent compassion our Radiant Health Centers’ staff and volunteers show in their care of people with HIV and AIDS.

Lastly, we’ve been leaders in this space, often identifying emerging needs in our community and developing programs and securing funding to meet them. For instance, we know that many of our clients struggled with mental or behavioral health issues before coming HIV positive. So, we’re expanding our mental and behavioral health programs to HIV-negative people in our LGBT community so that they can benefit from that service and our welcoming, compassionate counselors. We’d really rather see people in our mental health program while they’re HIV negative so that we can help them stay that way!

Similarly, we created a full continuum of housing assistance programs 25 years ago before the community had come to understand the connection between health and housing. People trying to manage their HIV and suppress the virus so it can’t be passed on to others have a hard time prioritizing their drug regimen and health when they don’t know where they will be sleeping tonight, where their next meal is coming from or whether anyone cares.

We help over 1,400 people every year, and I am so proud of the caring, compassion and difference Radiant Health Centers makes in their lives.

If you had to start over, what would you have done differently?
There are lessons learned every day. What is key is recognizing mistakes as learning opportunities. We encourage our people to take risks. We accept that mistakes will happen but encourage them to learn from them.

Because of the clinical nature of our work, our teams are constantly evaluating the care and support they provide to our clients. We want to know that we’ve addressed all of their issues to the best of our abilities and resources.

If I had any regrets, it would be that I didn’t get into this line of work sooner — than I didn’t realize my passion for community service at an earlier age. I would have liked to have focused my earlier education in this direction. That said, I’m grateful every day for the work I do, the team I lead and the people I help at Radiant Health Centers.

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