Project ARK/The SPOT recognized as model program by federal, state agencies

Center will mentor a new, similar program in East St. Louis

From left, Katie Plax, MD, shares a laugh with Ebony Tolliver, Keseina Victor and Kim Donica at a celebration Sept. 25 to mark the fifth anniversary of The SPOT. (Credit: Robert Boston)

In the 1990s, before Project ARK opened its doors to St. Louisans with or at risk of HIV infection, Kim Donica, the organization’s eventual executive director, researched and visited centers whose ideas she hoped to emulate.

Her mantra, borrowed from Steve Jobs: Steal good ideas shamelessly.

Several years later, that mantra has come full circle. Project ARK and its younger sibling and roommate, The SPOT, have been tapped as a model and mentor to what is hoped will be a similar center, with a similar impact, in East St. Louis, Ill.

“We are using them as our inspiration,” said Mildred Williamson, PhD, HIV/AIDS section chief for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Project ARK (AIDS/HIV Resources and Knowledge) opened in 1995 to coordinate medical care, social support and prevention services for children, youth, young adults, women and families living with or at risk for HIV infection. It’s a collaboration of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, St. Louis Children’s Hospital and other area health-care providers, including Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

In response to rising HIV infection rates and other poor health outcomes among minority youth in the region, Project ARK then worked with Katie Plax, MD, division director of Adolescent and Diagnostic Medicine in Washington University’s Department of Pediatrics, to develop a youth center. The SPOT (Supporting Positive Opportunities with Teens), which celebrated its fifth anniversary last month, is a School of Medicine program that addresses serious health risks facing youth ages 13-24 by providing comprehensive, one-stop health, social support and prevention services for free and with as few administrative barriers as possible.

Kim Donica cuts cake to mark The SPOT’s anniversary as Corteze Burns (far left) and Kevin Blanks look on. (Credit: Robert Boston)

Nearly every day, a line forms at Project ARK/The SPOT well before the center’s doors open. Youth flock there for mental health and substance-abuse counseling, help finding a job or a place to stay, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, or simply to grab a snack, take a shower or hang out where they feel welcome.

That youth are drawn there, particularly for STD-related services, also has drawn the attention of federal and Illinois health officials, who want to see a similar arrangement in East St. Louis.

To that end, a program overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently awarded a multidimensional three-year grant to improve HIV/AIDS education, testing and access to services in Illinois. Within that grant are funds to create a center for youth at the East Side Health District, which provides services to East St. Louis residents — many of whom currently obtain HIV/AIDS-related services at Project ARK/The SPOT in St. Louis.

Representatives from HHS, CDC, the Health Resources and Services Administration and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently visited Project ARK/The SPOT to tour the center and learn about its origins and offerings as a model program to serve high-risk youth.

“I just knew when we had this opportunity to apply for this funding that it would only make sense to collaborate with The SPOT,” said Williamson, who came on the tour and who was among the experts whose advice Donica had sought years ago, before Project ARK opened. “To have a youth-specific — particularly a LGBT-youth-specific facility and program like The SPOT — is critically essential for this population. It will provide a safe space in East St. Louis for young people to engage, to actually be themselves and to be accepted as part of humanity.”

Plax explains to federal and state health officials what The SPOT does to screen and treat HIV among area youth. Officials recently visited Project ARK/The SPOT to tour the center and learn about programs offered there. Seated is Youth Services Coordinator Lawrence Lewis. (Credit: E. Holland Durando)

The planned center, dubbed Kaleidoscope, will be housed in the East Side Health District building and is expected to open within a year. Like The SPOT, it will offer a range of services and programs for youth ages 13-24. To best meet the needs of that age group, it will be open from 5-9 p.m. weeknights.

Donica, Plax, Youth Services Coordinator Lawrence Lewis and other leaders from Project ARK/The SPOT will offer consultation and mentoring, and professionals on both sides of the river will work together to combat the area’s alarming number of HIV and sexually transmitted infections among those 13-24. In recent years, the St. Louis area has seen a surge in such infections in adolescents and young adults, a population often disconnected from the health-care system and support services.

Donica called it an honor for the center to be recognized as a model. “Replication is the greatest form of flattery,” she said.

Plax, medical director of The SPOT, explained that she and others at the center feel a responsibility to make sure that all youths in the community have the opportunity to succeed and grow.

Asked by one of the visitors how the relationship would work between Project ARK/The SPOT and the new site in East St. Louis, Plax responded: “We have open doors here, and we are willing to share. … We’re not going to solve this problem if we stay within our four walls.”

For more photos from the anniversary celebration, follow this link.