Rhonda Bayless started out with a desire to be a broadcaster when she attended Franklin College for journalism. The path of her destiny seemed to be guiding her in another direction, though. At a young age, she was taught the importance of community service and engagement. The matriarch of her family kept them involved in some capacity of volunteerism starting at a very young age, so much so that Rhonda states she cannot remember ever not giving of herself somehow. She has done things as simple as sweeping streets at her Grandmother’s house, helped at clothing drives, served food at fish fries, and assisted the elderly at nursing homes.
Of all the community service Rhonda has taken part in, though, she has found that giving of herself to the HIV community has been the most fulfilling. She now works for the Damien Center in Indianapolis, Indiana as a prevention program manager and the SAMHSA project director. From 1997-2003 she was the program director for Woman to Woman. She left the Damien Center at that time to work as the Community Partnership Coordinator for AmeriChoice working with organizations assisting and serving the aged, blind, and disabled Indianapolis residents receiving Medicaid Select. When changes in Medicaid protocol took place, Rhonda then transitioned over to Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County as a grants writer while also working with Girls Inc. National Resource Center as the CDC Program Manger primarily providing capacity building assistance to 92 Girls Inc affiliates on HIV/AIDS, pregnancy prevention, and drug use for African American and Latina Girls.
“I truly believe in doing all I can to be of assistance to my community. I want to see everyone living a balanced, healthy, safe life. I’m hoping that with working with state and national programs that I can bring a new, fresh perspective to working in HIV prevention.” (www.damien.org/staff) As the Program Director of Woman to Woman, Rhonda discovered that the system of care for women was/is shattered. “It’s very difficult to navigate the healthcare system and this was a major barrier for the women I was trying to educate around HIV/AIDS. It was difficult to get the women to focus on their overall health and well-being because they were simply trying to survive.” Rhonda states during this time period she wanted to form an organization that would help educate these women on how to be good consumers of the healthcare system while also being proactive in their health. Rhonda’s vision: seeing women move from survival to empowerment and living well. This is when the Center for Wellness for Urban Women, the connection for women to learn those first steps to being proactive.
CWUW’s mission is to empower women and their families to become proactive in their health by improving the many facets of self: mind, body, and spirit. The avenues for empowerment consist of education, advocacy, care, and prevention. There are many sub-programs that are sheltered by the umbrella of CWUW:
Girls 2 Women: CWUW provides skills building activities to girls ages 14-16 at Shortridge Magnet High School to assist them in anger management, peer mediation, and other life skills issues.
CWUW Annual Clothing Exchange and Drive: This is a free clothing exchange and drive for women, men, and children. Donations are welcome. It is a beautiful thing when the clothing that one person does not need and/or cannot fit anymore can become a prized possession to another.
7 Dimensions of Wellness Workshops: The dichotomy is originally coined by Dr. Hettler of the National Wellness Institute. The 7 Dimensions of Wellness encourages one to seek stability within all dimensions of their body, mind, and spirit in order to support daily healthy living. The workshop teaches its participants to understand and to apply each dimension to his/her life along with helping to develop an action plan.
CWUW Life Jam: Life Jam is a music and art event to celebrate ART +Heath month in November. Participants revel in the healing power of music, art, and friendship with a highlight on the best local talent wrapped in healthy messages. Life Jam is also CWUW’s annual fundraising event.
Sisters Together Walking Program: Move More. Eat Better. This is a national initiative of the Weight-control Information Network (WIN). CWUW is very excited about their partnership with WIN as an information service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (a part of the National Institutes of Health). Through this partnership CWUW will be able to connect with other organizations providing the Sisters Together program in order to review brochures, tip sheets, and other educational materials.
Miss Mary’s Wellness Garden: CWUW has started a new community garden with four primary goals: education of community garden, neighborhood beautification, food sustainability, and garden therapy.
When asked if she could change just one aspect of our ailing society, what it would be and why; Rhonda’s response was “Just one?” How do you ask a naturally born humanitarian to pick simply one thing? Her answer though: health. “We need to educate ourselves on how to eat again. We need to understand how our bodies work with our minds, and how our minds work with our spirits. We have to understand how we are connected to our world effects our health and well-being. Our food and water issues globally are really disturbing. I really want to see the world living….well.” Rhonda’s mother had, and still has such a great influence in her life. Besides the fact that Rhonda thinks that her mother deserves the award for the best mother in the world….ever…she was taught by her mother leading by example in the way she simply loved people…period. All people. She believed in service to her fellow mankind. Rhonda’s Mom died in 2004 of lung cancer. Although Rhonda’s heart shattered, she was ready and knew that it was her job to carry on in the manner that her Mama had trained her to do so in. Rhonda also states that, although it may sound cliché, Mother Teresa has had a profound influence on her. “She truly shaped the way I view humanity. You serve everyone. You make way for those who the world doesn’t care for anymore. She really shaped my approach to community service.
It is only fair to say that no one in this world has a problem free life. When I asked Rhonda to name the biggest mountain she had to face and climb over and above she recounted a battle with bulimia. “I’m a recovering bulimic, and what a journey! It’s been an odd blessing. I’ve had to really look at the woman in the mirror and face ME. Understanding that it’s not always about food, but more about coping skills and control has been a revelation. I have a relationship with food that I’m always having to readjust and face. It’s like an relationship in life. You have to work at it being a relationship that is healthy.”
Having the personality that Rhonda has, she is currently struggling with and learning to balance her time and give herself some attention amidst all the help that she is constantly giving to others. As a self-proclaimed workaholic, she knows that she needs to balance her work life with her personal life in order to obtain the concept of health that CWUW yearns to deliver to the women of the Indianapolis community. “I love my work at the Damien Center as prevention manager and I love developing a new nonprofit to help women and their families live better. It’s a joy. Unlike others, in my spare time, I do my best NOT to volunteer, or do community work. I try to exercise more, use my journal to find balance. I know it’s important to take time for me and just me. Sometimes doing nothing is the best thing in the world. I embrace nothingness days.”
Rhonda’s message to all the young women out there: “Love yourself. The world will always find something wrong with you. ALWAYS! Find that love in your heart for who you are and who God has made you to be. Just love all over yourself.” And to all others: “Love one another. Check your ego at the door. Be humble. And as my Mother would say: Love, Love, and Love some more!”
If any of you would like to volunteer at the Damien Center, help is needed in the food pantry and at the testing center. Simply call 317-632-0123 and ask for Tracy Johnson. CWUW has needs for volunteers for the community garden, the Life Jam advisory board, and clothing drive committee. Email Rhonda @ email@example.com.