Ed Stellon has been promoting health equity and harm reduction at Heartland Alliance Health for over 28 years. Starting with outreach and case management in the 1990s, Ed’s work serving vulnerable populations has put him on the front lines of both the HIV epidemic and homelessness crisis in Chicago.
Today, Ed is the executive director of Heartland Alliance Health – where he champions equity and opportunity, two critical tools in achieving greater individual and community health.
What got you into this work?
When I first came to Heartland Alliance, I was a certified addictions counselor. I started my career in a methadone clinic, helping people recover. I’d always been interested in marginalized communities – not in how they face barriers, but more in how they resist and overcome those barriers.
For instance, folks with substance use disorders are often marginalized or have faced a lot of trauma – the resilience I saw in these people always inspired me. I always wanted to be a supporting part of that healing process with them. When I got the chance to work with our homeless participants I jumped at the opportunity.
Why is this HAH’s work important to the community? To the people we serve?
Homelessness is a failure of systems, not people. HAH’s work is important in that we’re addressing the social determinants of health along with providing healthcare. If homelessness gets in the way of you addressing your diabetes, we have to find a way to get you housed – as it is a fundamental part of treatment to your diabetes. This shift in perspective around the social determinants of health is why we’re unique in the healthcare world.
Was there a moment where you KNEW you were in a job that was right for you?
I feel like the job of our staff is to support our participants and MY job is to support the staff. There was a time when a staff member came to me feeling very down, as one of her participants had just relapsed. She was really upset and questioning her own effectiveness as a counselor. I stopped her and I reframed her experience. What saw was a clinician who had worked with someone long enough to build trust and to come back AFTER the relapse – even during one of the most difficult moments in this participant’s life.
As a case worker myself, I’ve been there before. Perspective, community, and hope are all integral to the long term work that we do. In that conversation, I just knew “yep, THIS is what I’m here for.”
What is your favorite part of your job?
By far my favorite part of my job is the relational piece. Unlike a lot of executive directors in healthcare, I sit at the intersection of primary care, mental health services, food nutrition, housing, behavioral health – I get to be around it all. I love getting to be an interpreter of our overall goals through all of these different sectors. We have an overall mission, even though were all doing different work – and I get to be the torch bearer.
How can others help your work?
In addition to direct funding assistance, I think the most helpful thing is to try to understand what the world looks like from the perspective of the people we serve. So that when you’re at that dinner party or meeting with colleagues, or when issues come up – you can actually provide a clear, compassionate perspective. We need to be constantly challenging our perception of homelessness or of vulnerable populations – because from that perspective, we can find action, or advocacy, or support. If we could all become a little more mindful, that would be a game changer.