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Three Letters Open New Doors for Ferguson

“I'm a well-seasoned, fully-cooked one,” Joan Ferguson laughed.

Joan Ferguson posing

With 62 years of life under her belt, Ferguson had witnessed much, traveled far and served members of her community for decades. But despite 25 years of experience in healthcare advocacy and HIV awareness, she still did not have the credentials to prove it. So Ferguson set out to earn those initials behind her name: CHW (community health worker). With three letters, she could open new doors in the field and increase her value in the workforce.

Ferguson’s career journey got its start back in the early 1990s, a time of fear, scientific unknowns, misinformation and alienation. HIV was spreading into new demographics and community members right here in St. Louis were contracting and dying from the disease.

A journalism student at St. Louis Community College at the time, Ferguson began working as a columnist at the Riverfront Times newspaper. Music was her main beat, visiting nightclubs and covering big name touring acts coming to town. She went where the story was, including a lot of night clubs in St. Louis. And that’s where she saw firsthand the painful and deadly devastation caused by HIV. Her volunteer work at the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists reinforced what she witnessed.

“At that time, we were starting to see the numbers change,” she said. “We had all been educated that HIV was a gay white man's disease. And we were just starting to see people of color in our community contract and die from HIV.”

Ferguson wanted to learn the facts so she could educate and save people in her community from this preventable disease. She and two friends decided to take an American Red Cross course about HIV and AIDS prevention, education, counseling and testing.

“For me, that was the start of the next 25 years.”

That course sparked her extensive career in HIV/AIDS work, serving at local organizations, developing programs and becoming a master trainer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. St. Louis was the starting point of her work, launching her into programs around the United States, the Caribbean and Africa.

Opening New Doors

And then in 2021, Ferguson decided to jump back into her formal education in pursuit of those CHW credentials. She returned to STLCC and enrolled in the community health worker accelerated program.

STLCC’s program leaders introduced the class to healthcare movers and shakers in St. Louis, bringing in representatives from local hospitals and government organizations. This was a class highlight for her, and she now shares the knowledge, resources and connections she gained with co-workers and her own family. Program leaders also valued Ferguson’s experiences in HIV awareness and gave her opportunities to share with classmates.

“They believe in us,” she said. “They are behind us 100%.”

In just 16 weeks, Ferguson graduated from the non-credit program. One month later, she received her community health worker credential from the Missouri Credentialing Board.

Ferguson now works as a community health worker at Williams and Associates, Inc., a non-profit organization focused on eliminating health disparities in St. Louis. With its emphasis on offering health education workshops on HIV/STI prevention, violence prevention and LGBTQ sensitivity, her experience and knowledge from working in the field is invaluable.

Coming Together For Peace, Focusing on the Similarities

Ferguson is also embarking on a new journey here in St. Louis: a nonprofit spirituality center for peace.

“I want a place where we decide to come together, and not focus on the differences, but focus on the similarities,” she said. “And serve through a health ministry, meaning that we're going out into the community, and we're sharing information on how you can live a longer, healthier, active life.”

Ferguson encourages others, especially those who are older and more “seasoned,” to share life lessons with younger generations and to continue using their gifts. They should take their education off the back burner and pursue those dreams they had when they were 19 or 20 years old.

“It's always been in my life and in my heart to help people. And I'm still doing that,” Ferguson said. “And I will always do that until the day that I leave here.”

Learn more about STLCC's Community Health Worker program at stlcc.edu/CHW.

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