Heartland CARES takes on new director

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By Da’Sha Tuck, Staff writer 

Spending most of his career fighting HIV and AIDS in different parts of Africa, Sean Oslin has brought his determination to Heartland CARES, Inc. in Paducah, Kentucky, serving as the new executive director.

Heartland CARES is a nonprofit organization that provides HIV/AIDS education, counselling and testing.

“I think Sean Oslin is exciting, vibrant and knowledgeable,” said Peggy Pittman-Munke, who serves on the Heartland CARES Board of Directors as secretary and at Murray State as the interim program director for social work. “He has a strong background in HIV/AIDS work both in this country and in Africa. His professional credentials are impeccable.”

Where it all began

Oslin said he began working in HIV prevention in 1993. He said it happened by accident, but it launched his career in the direction of HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention and treatment.

According to the CDC, there is currently  no cure for HIV,  but with the proper medical treatment, it can be controlled.

Working at Rosehedge, a nonprofit organization that provided HIV/AIDS treatment in Seattle,as the director of public relations and development, Oslin gained experience he said he was not expecting.

He said his office was in the basement where he focused on fundraising and development, but he said he was often compelled to be directly involved with the clients who resided upstairs.

Oslin described times where he would hear clients fall and he would rush to help the nurses take care of the clients.

He also said he spent time gathering clients who had wandered into the busy streets of Seattle because their condition caused them to be confused.

During his time working with the clients at Rosehedge, Oslin said he built relationships with the clients, which made it that much harder when HIV/AIDS killed them.

“It was very eye-opening,” Oslin said. “I never thought a job where I was having to deal with death on a daily basis would be something I could handle, but overtime I found I was thriving in that environment.”

He said it was a great experience because he really felt he was making a difference in people’s lives.

In the mid 90s, Oslin said protease inhibitors that interrupted the lifespan of the HIV virus were introduced. He said this was a huge breakthrough that changed HIV treatment.

“That had a really incredible effect on our clients,” Oslin said. “People stopped dying. People who were living for 18 months were now living one or two years.”

Oslin said, at this point, they had to restructure their program and retrain staff to deal with more long-term treatment.

Along with HIV/AIDS, Oslin said other illnesses manifest like drug addiction and mental illness. He said since clients were not dying as quickly, they could begin focusing on treating those issues as well.

This restructuring pushed Oslin into his next career step.

“I was working for an organization that was focused on doing whatever it took to help the clients in the community,” Oslin said. “That really framed my attitude about managing a nonprofit organization.”

Moving Forward

After leaving Rosehedge, Oslin returned to school and got his master’s degree in Health Administration.

Oslin decided he wanted to continue in health care management.  

He began work in diabetes disease management, vaccine outreach programs and electronic medical records, but he said he didn’t feel involved in the community doing that work.

The opportunity to travel to eastern and southern parts of Africa to work on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment came up. He spent eight and a half years consulting in Africa and furthering the cause of HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention and awareness.

While still in Africa, a friend told him about the position at Heartland CARES and he applied.

Oslin has now been the executive director for Heartland CARES for two months.

“Serving as the board chairperson for Heartland CARES, I am fortunate to have a close working relationship with the senior management of the agency,” said Jody Cofer Randall, Murray State’s coordinator for LGBT Programming and who serves as a chairwoman on the Heartland CARES Board of Directors. “With the support of Deputy Director Donna Reeder and others, I can attest that Sean stepped into his role on day one and has not slowed down yet.”

Pittman-Munke also said she is proud to have been a part of the hiring team that brought Oslin to Heartland CARES.

“He is determined to wipe out new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in western Kentucky and has committed himself and Heartland CARES to an active prevention program,” she said. “He is both visionary and personable.”

Pittman-Munke said Oslin relates very well to his clients and to potential clients and is already well liked by the staff at Heartland CARES.

She also said he is willing to put great effort into stigma reduction and move the “already great facility” to the next level.

“He is a leader who models his expectations of staff and who is willing to work hard for prevention and stigma reduction in this region,” Pittman-Munke said. “Heartland CARES was fortunate to attract a leader of his caliber to western Kentucky. He puts his whole heart into his work.”

Getting Tested and Educated

According to the CDC, the most common way HIV is transmitted is through sexual activity and needle use.

There are people who are at a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS like commercial sex workers, homosexual men, those who have been victims of sexual assault or abuse, anyone who uses intravenous drugs, etc., Oslin said. 

Oslin said no matter if a person falls into these categories or not, everyone should know their status.

Heartland CARES provides “rapid HIV testing” at their office in Paducah, Kentucky. This is available by appointment or walk-in.  

The organization also provides information and counselling services.

For more information on the organization, visit http://cballendesign.com/heartlandcares/.

Oslin said the transition from working abroad in Africa to Paducah, Kentucky, has been easier than he expected. He said he is excited to see what all he and his staff will be able to accomplish in the coming months.

He also said he sees a lot of potential of working with Murray State students in the future. Having students just simply volunteer would be extremely helpful, he said.

Cofer Randall said she is excited about seeing Murray State students working with Heartland CARES.

“Sean has been quick to demonstrate his interest in Heartland CARES collaborating with Murray State University,” she said. “In his short time on the job, he has visited Murray State and met with Health Services Director Kim Paschall, Student Affairs Vice President Don Robertson and Acting Provost Renae Duncan to begin forming relationships and offering his assistance.”

In the meantime, he said he will keep doing what he knows: advocating for HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention and treatment.  

“You do what it takes and you adapt when you need to,” Oslin said. “I am always concerned with the needs of the clients and the needs of the community.”