New AmeriCorps program seeks to address urgent public health needs

Angela Wilson, a former Public Health AmeriCorps member, now works at the DeKalb County health department. Years ago as an intern, she was getting to the root of a patient's pain when a doctor told her to 'stay in your lane.' (Ben Gray /

Credit: Ben Gray

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Angela Wilson, a former Public Health AmeriCorps member, now works at the DeKalb County health department. Years ago as an intern, she was getting to the root of a patient's pain when a doctor told her to 'stay in your lane.' (Ben Gray /

Credit: Ben Gray

About 20 years ago, as a recent graduate of Chattahoochee Technical College, Angela Wilson was drawn to the medical field, but the attraction wouldn’t last.

Finishing up an internship to be a medical assistant, she was talking to a patient who was struggling mightily – the patient’s husband had recently died, and her son was battling a drug addiction.

“This was not someone just having a bad day, there were so many heavy things happening at once. So I began to uplift her, and I was like, ‘When was the last time you took care of yourself, like a bubble bath? And she cracked a big smile, and she said, ‘I don’t even think about it.’”

But when Wilson updated the doctor on the conversation, he reprimanded her.

“He told me, ‘stay in your lane’” said Wilson.

So she did. She explored other types of jobs including working at a museum exhibit and a title pawn shop.

But as the years went by, Wilson continued to feel the pull to public health. She went back to college and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public health. She found her place in the Public Health AmeriCorps, a new partnership between AmeriCorps, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention whose goal is to recruit and train some of the next generation of public health workers.

Wilson, now 38, was hired last year as a Public Health AmeriCorps community outreach specialist with the DeKalb County Board of Health. Wilson, who grew up in Decatur and continues to live in DeKalb County, has helped plan and coordinate several health screening events in the county including blood pressure screening and glucose monitoring.

AmeriCorps, a large national service organization with 200,000 current members and senior volunteers was founded in 1993 but its roots go back to 1965 when Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) was created as a domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps.

AmeriCorps sponsors service opportunities for a wide variety of needs including education, public safety, and working with veterans and military families.

The public health workforce is severely understaffed here in Georgia and across the country. A recent study by the de Beaumont Foundation and the Association of State and Territorial Health officials found that state and health departments need to hire 80,000 more people in order to adequately provide core public health services.

“We are at a crisis moment so we need to have crisis solutions,” said Michael D. Smith, chief executive officer of AmeriCorps. “And if we are going to fill that 80,000 gap, we are not going to fill it with just people who have MPHs. (Master of Public Health degrees). It’s just impossible.”

He said many jobs — such as Naloxone training to respond to an opioid overdose emergency — don’t require a college degree. He said the Public Health AmeriCorps removes barriers and provides an opportunity to help launch careers in public health.

“Folks who are from these communities who never saw themselves in this space, all of a sudden they see, ‘I can do that. My skill set is welcome,’” he said,

The first Public Health AmeriCorps members started serving last summer during the pandemic and initially focused on COVID-related jobs including support for testing and vaccination efforts. But they’ve since branched out to a wide variety of critical needs. They are operating phones for the 988 mental health crisis hotline. They are working with the American Heart Association on chronic disease prevention in rural communities with less access to preventive care. They are helping schedule medical appointments, they are supporting mental health programs in schools.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

While AmeriCorps assignments can be in another state from where a person lives, this program is designed to fill these positions with local residents who are already part of a community. Smith said the public health AmeriCorps program is designed with the hopes of members staying in their communities and continuing to work in the field of public health.

So far, about 3,500 Americans, including 87 Georgians have filled one of these new Public Health AmeriCorps roles, The minimum age is 17. Most of the members are between the ages of 21 and 35. Only half have a college degree. Close to a quarter have a high school degree or less education. About half of the Public Health AmeriCorps members identify as Black, indigenous, and people of color.

Public Health AmeriCorps was supported by an initial investment of $400 million in funding over a five-year-period from the $7 billion of the American Rescue Plan to recruit and hire public health workers to respond to the pandemic and prepare for future public health challenges. But recent legislation to avoid a debt default pulled back funds already appropriated and has impacted the total investment in the Public Health AmeriCorps program.

The positions have an annual salary of $28,800 and organizations hiring these members can pay an additional amount. These positions also come with health care benefits and an award to help cover student loans or can be put toward future education costs. The amount equals the maximum amount of a Pell Grant, which is $7,395 for the 2023-24 award year. Most positions are about a year-long commitment.

“Public Health AmeriCorps is a really important innovative program,” said Allison Chamberlain, director of the Emory Center for Public Health Preparedness and Research. “It would be a shame for it to go away so quickly after it just got its traction.”

Chamberlain said the program helps fill critical jobs including disease detectives and helping connect people with a disease to services. But the program can’t meet all critical needs in public health including a desperate need for more public health nurses, she said.

And the major obstacle to filling these jobs, Chamberlain said is the salaries for public health workers. Health care workers can easily get higher paying jobs in the private and non-profit sector than government jobs, she said.

Meanwhile, Wilson credits her AmeriCorps experience for preparing her for her new full-time job with the DeKalb County Board of Health as a program operations specialist for AmeriCorps public health initiative, which involves training and supporting and overseeing the work of several AmeriCorps members.

“I figured this would be a great experience and help guide my steps,” she said about the Public Health AmeriCorps stint. “It has opened many doors and helped me understand that my many loves and passions I have in my heart, there are many ways to serve.”

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