By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter
While most people are lazily marinating in the last hours before the work week begins, Huan Dong is busy volunteering 12-14 hours of his time at the Berkeley Free Clinic every Sunday.
The 26-year-old UC Berkeley graduate works at the Gay Men’s Health Collective, a section within the clinic that provides free sexually transmitted infections testing and treatment, and counseling to men of all ages and sexual orientations. He is a volunteer medic and a GMHC section coordinator.
When Dong isn’t volunteering at the clinic, he’s working as an assistant production manager for the Educational Theater Company, a Kaiser Permanente program that facilitates live theater performances for tens of thousands of adolescents each year, covering subjects like anti-bullying, puberty, STI/HIV prevention, peer pressure, and healthy relationships.
“I am a performer/educator,” Dong said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. “We engage students, teens, and adults in health conversation and dialogue through the medium of live theater to disseminate information that will hopefully influence the students and community members to make healthy decisions in their life.”
But it’s Dong’s work at the Berkeley Free Clinic for which Kaiser Permanente recently recognized him.
In January, his four years of volunteer service were commended when he received the David Lawrence Service Award, which honors Kaiser Permanente physicians and employees who illustrate great community service and undertake exceptional efforts to improving community health.
Dong was among the 15 winners selected from 135 nominees.
“I felt completely honored,” he said. “I looked at the other people’s profiles who received the award and I’m literally amongst stars, people I strive to be like. Some are physicians that have been through a decade of work. For someone like me that is just starting a medical/health career to receive this award for my work at the clinic – I’m without words.”
Each winner receives a $10,000 donation to designate to a nonprofit organization which means that this year, the Berkeley Free Clinic is getting lucky.
“The award money couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Evan Howard, the clinic’s funding coordinator.
“Over the years our funding has been cut to levels where we’ve considered possibly closing because of the unsustainability of government funding,” Howard added. “Five years ago, we would be working on a budget of $400,000 annually and now, our budget is less than $200,000.”
Most of the award money will be allocated toward the clinic’s Women and Trans-inclusive Services, a new program that provides STI testing and treatment, and counseling services for all women and transgender individuals.
While Howard is thrilled for the clinic, he is also proud of Dong. For someone so young to receive the honor, he said, speaks volumes of his character.
“I’ve heard people talk about that award, how prestigious it is. If I had to pick someone at the clinic that really represents the idea of doing service for the health community, it would be Huan. He is able to put people at ease and connect with them wherever they are in their situations to bring out fruitful conversations,” Howard said.
“He’s so respectful and genuine,” Howard added.
For most of his life, Dong was on the receiving end of many services. His parents moved his family to San Jose from Vietnam when he was 4. Growing up, he remembers living in a house with 15 of his family members and the “Monopoly” money his mother used to buy groceries.
“They were really food stamps,” he said.
After Dong learned English, he did well enough in school to be admitted to UC Berkeley. He credits his hard-working ethic to his parents.
“I saw how hard my parents worked so their family could have opportunities they hadn’t received because of the Vietnam war,” he said. “With that, how could I not work hard? I wanted to really follow-through and grasp those opportunities.”
If growing up as an immigrant adolescent wasn’t hard enough, add the challenge of coming out as a member of the LGBT community. Dong credits his attraction to community service to the support he received from various people and organizations when overcoming the two adversities.
“I’ve gained that system of support from organizations that helped me,” he said. “I want to do the same for others who might need that mentorship. Whenever I can be, I am supportive.”
Dong is planning to apply to medical schools by year’s end.
Winners of the David Lawrence Service Award were selected by a subcommittee of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc., and Kaiser Foundation Hospital’s board of directors. Lawrence, a physician, is a former CEO of Kaiser Permanente and lifelong advocate of improving health.