Loyola University Chicago

School of Social Work

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SSW alum's 'journey' leads to underserved LGBTQ seniors

SSW alum

By Anna Gaynor

Howard Brown Health Center is an LGBTQ-focused clinic located on Chicago’s North Side, and for Hugh Cole, a social worker and addiction counselor, there’s no place he’d rather be.

“The LGBT experience is something that’s personal to me,” Cole said. “I know that access to care for people in the community is harder than it is for the public at large, even though it’s changing now with policies as far as marriage and rights of relationship. I’m very interested in helping bridge disparities and access to care.”

In 2008—well before he earned his bachelor’s degree in 2013 and his master’s degree in 2014 from Loyola’s School of Social Work—Cole started volunteering at the Uptown clinic, which provides wrap-around health care benefits to the LGBTQ community, including behavioral health, mental health, and case management services. And it was while he was still at Loyola that he helped develop a support group called The Journey Continues for senior citizen clients at Howard Brown.

“There are some services for elder queer folk in the city, but they tend to be day programs or activity-based,” Cole said. “Not therapy that asks, ‘What is your experience like and how can we talk about what’s really going on? How can we address how you’re feeling in this experience of aging?’ ”

The meetings, which are held once a week for 16 weeks, can touch on losing friends and partners, moving into assisted living facilities, and getting older within a community so heavily impacted by HIV/AIDS. One of the group’s early supporters was Julia Pryce, PhD, an associate professor at the School of Social Work.

Discovering a new purpose

Cole was a nontraditional student for many reasons. For starters, he began his education at Loyola as a 50-year-old who also was working part-time at Howard Brown and full-time at a hotel. That work ethic made an impression on Pryce, as did Cole’s enthusiasm to learn and his commitment to helping the LGBTQ community.

“He had this idea that he thought was important, but it was just a fledgling idea,” Pryce said. “We helped him move the idea forward. What would that look like on the ground? How would we actually implement this project? How would we study it? How would we measure it? How would we get funding for it? Who would we talk to?”

In Pryce’s Methods of Social Work Research class, Cole started discussing the concept with her and his classmates. She quickly saw that he was open to learning from younger peers’ experiences—and that they were just as eager to learn from his.

That experience included 17 years in New York City volunteering at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, or GMHC, which is dedicated to HIV/AIDS prevention and care services. Cole also worked as an actor and then later managed hotels. After September 11, 2001, though, he decided to move back to his hometown Chicago.

“9/11 made me think about why I’m doing the work that I’m doing,” Cole said. “If I wanted to stay on that track for the rest of my life or if I wanted to shift into something more service-oriented. That’s why I chose Loyola, actually. The Jesuit mission is really about service, commitment to community, and that grounded sense of faith.”

As it turns out, Pryce was one of Cole’s first professors at Loyola. Besides being the person to nominate Cole for his President’s Medallion in 2012-13, she also encouraged him to apply for the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship. The fellowship, which encourages students in health care to pursue helping underserved groups, is often given to medical students finishing their degrees. As a social worker-to-be, Cole found applying to be a little unnerving.

“You have to go through this big application process,” he said. “I went to the interview with other Schweitzer Fellows. They asked me one question: ‘Why do you do this work?’ I said because I am my brother’s keeper, and I believe that.

“That is one of the core reasons why I came back here, why I’m a social worker, why I was in school. These are my brothers, and sisters, and we can’t let them suffer and stand silent. I think that’s the one thing that won people over.”

Getting to work

From there, the other hard part began. When designing his program for older clients, Cole set up focus groups to find out firsthand what types of services LGBTQ seniors wanted. But after his first 16-week session was over, Cole received an unexpected note on what they felt needed to be changed.

They wanted someone younger.

It wasn’t that they wanted to replace Cole, they assured him, or that they didn’t like the group’s other facilitator, who was about Cole’s same age. It had more to do with their own legacy.

“What they were saying is that what they wanted was to leave behind their knowledge,” Cole said. “Use us to inform what services should look like and what they could look like. Bring someone younger, who’s going to be able to do it longer, because you’re getting kind of old, Hugh. The fact that they felt OK to say that to me was just really awesome.”

So Hugh’s next co-facilitator was in her 20s, and the next session’s group loved her. Today she works with the aging population in Latino communities on Chicago’s West Side, while Cole leads The Journey Continues with a doctor of pharmacy student from Chicago State University as well as a Loyola student in the School of Social Work.

“It’s such a great example of a really transformative education and also what can happen with good ideas that get support,” Pryce said. “In this case, I think they’re having a big impact on the community, which is just really exciting.”

Supporting a community

It’s not the only group at Howard Brown that Cole can be seen attending to. In addition to being an addiction counselor in the Recovering with Pride program, Cole also organizes behavioral health clinicians’ luncheons a few times a year, offering health care workers a primer in working with the LGBTQ community.

With more than a hundred clinicians attending from hundreds of miles away, the lunches have focused on issues such as micro-aggressions and race, bisexuality, and queer-identified people within the military.

Cole himself knows the importance of giving people a safe place to talk about what’s happening in their lives. From the beginning of his journey, Cole saw his role as being a listener offering insight whenever he can. It’s a goal he sets for the sessions he leads today and is teaching to the students who are learning to do the same.

“Whether someone is religious from a faith community or not, the Jesuit mission at its core is about this idea that is absolutely at the heart of social work,” Cole said. “We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We have a responsibility to each other to look after our well-being, particularly the marginalized and most vulnerable.”