In recognition of her work to reduce HIV/AIDS disparities in high-risk Miami neighborhoods, Sonjia Kenya, Ed.D., M.S., M.A., a researcher at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, has received the prestigious 2022 Sapphire Award.
“This award means so much because I created our street-based HIV programs from my heart, by developing meaningful relationships with stakeholders in at-risk communities,” said Dr. Kenya, director of Community Health at the Weiss Center for Health Equity at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of UHealth – University of Miami Health System, and associate professor of medicine and public health at the Miller School.
“This award acknowledges the power of community partnerships to reduce health disparities. It is amazing that our collaborative work to end HIV is being recognized.”
The statewide award was presented on May 4 to Dr. Kenya and six other recipients, all of whom were honored for making a meaningful impact in their communities related to advancements in health equity. The Florida Blue Foundation is the philanthropic affiliate of Florida Blue, the state’s Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan.
Along with her second-place award, Dr. Kenya received a $50,000 cash award to be put toward community programs.
Dr. Kenya was honored for her work establishing unconventional systems for testing and treatment of HIV/AIDS in underserved neighborhoods. The programs she has developed rely on community members to develop culturally acceptable health care delivery models.
“We recruit people from within the community who are trusted and train them to become community health workers,” said Kenya, who is also associate director of the biobehavioral, social sciences, and outreach core at the Center for AIDS Research, and research and education officer in the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement.
“These community leaders are a wealth of knowledge, and they want to help their neighborhood. As health care providers, we simply need to listen. Once the community trusts us, they tell us what is acceptable, and how to do it based on cultural norms. This is how we make inroads that lead to improved health.”
Research has shown that Black and African American populations continue to face the most severe burden of HIV and AIDS of any racial/ethnic group in the nation. With the strides that have been made in HIV research, Dr. Kenya believes that HIV can be a chronic, manageable condition for anyone who has been affected.
Improving Health Care Access
Nearly 15 years ago, Dr. Kenya was the first employee hired at the Miller School’s Jay Weiss Center for Social Medicine and Health Equity, which was established in memory of philanthropist Jay W. Weiss to help fulfill his vision of equal access to quality health care. Dr. Kenya’s work since then has led to sustainable improvements in health care access across Miami’s underserved neighborhoods.
“Dr. Kenya’s accomplishments in health equity exemplify the phrase ‘out of the box,’” said Olveen Carrasquillo, M.D., M.P.H., co-director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and long-time mentor of Dr. Kenya. “The nontraditional manner in which she embeds herself into her communities of focus is key to her ongoing success. She has served the role as an educator and mentor.”
Among her many accomplishments: a program known as CHAMP (Community-Based HIV Awareness and Testing for Minority Populations), which conducts street-based HIV testing with the help of community partners in neighborhoods such as Overtown, Liberty City, and Little Haiti. CHAMP has become a model of care that has been replicated by many public agencies.
Listening to the Community
“This program has created a huge team of health educators, because they have to know enough about what we are doing to engage someone to come receive our care,” said Dr. Kenya. “Community members feel empowered as educators and as health advocates for their neighborhoods.”
Dr. Kenya adds that in many cases, the use of community health care workers has led to an increased willingness among many in the community to go into formal health care settings to receive care for other health problems.
She gives credit for her work to her mentor, Dr. Carrasquillo, who has supported her non-traditional form of patient outreach.
“Throughout the years, he told me I was doing it the right way and helped me fight off any self-doubt that came along,” said Dr. Kenya. “His support helped me navigate academic medicine in a way where I could leverage my position to really create an impact. It’s been priceless.”
Dr. Kenya continues to build effective systems of health care in Miami’s most underserved communities, and to expand her methods of care. With the support of the Miller School, she trains medical students to address community health problems in this same manner: by listening to the needs of the community and working to address those needs in the most impactful way possible.
“The community matters and their voice matters,” said Kenya. “They tell us what they need and how to help. All we have to do is listen.”