After more than 25 years working and volunteering at Prevention Point, education coordinator Elvis Rosado is leaving for a city desk job to concentrate on his own mental health.
Since starting as a volunteer in 1992, back when the harm reduction nonprofit was a pioneering needle exchange, Rosado became an institution at the Kensington center. The 54-year-old is basically the face of the organization, and responsible for saving an untold number of people from overdose deaths.
He’s trained thousands to use opioid reversal drug naloxone — nuns, librarians, judges, even Gov. Tom Wolf last year.
“I don’t think there’s even a way to know how many people I saved,” Rosado said. “I literally worked in the field forever.”
For years, he’s worked 90-hour weeks. Now, he’s come to the realization it’s time to start taking care of himself. As of last week, Rosado is employed with the Health Federation of Philadelphia, where he’ll work as a 9-to-5 harm reduction educator.
“The vicarious trauma was starting to take its toll on me,” Rosado told Billy Penn. “It got to the point where I said, ‘If I don’t find a way to unpack what’s in my head, I’m going to have to leave.’”
‘I’m crying at commercials’
At Prevention Point, Rosado wasn’t just tasked with running Narcan trainings. It’s been his responsibility to work with neighborhood groups to convince them to support the center’s mission. He has also run the Latino Teach program — a free, bilingual HIV/AIDS education course.
Rosado juggled the duties outlined in his job description with the constant interruption of people overdosing inside and outside the building.
He helped the operation grow from a small rowhome with supplies stored in the garage to a large community center providing a wealth of resources — everything from legal services to housing, food and health care. Rosado was an integral part of the progress. His colleagues said he had the perfect attitude for the work.
“Elvis is one of those folks who you can depend on making that extra effort,” said Clayton Ruley, PP’s director of community engagement and volunteer services. “It’s get it done, no holds barred. It’s not about hours, it’s not about complaining. It’s about getting results, getting it done and dedication to the mission.”
But Rosado has his own trauma. He’s seen two people get shot and killed right in front of him. Last year, Rosado ran to help someone laying face down on the sidewalk, who he thought was experiencing an overdose — but when Rosado flipped him over, he saw the man’s throat had been cut.
“Every time you reverse somebody, you’re traumatized because you don’t know if this person is going to survive or not.” Rosado said. “The whole time you’re working on someone you’re thinking, ‘I might not be able to save this person.’”
A therapist that came too late
Seeing Rosado’s emotional struggle reach dangerous levels, Prevention Point got him a therapist earlier this year. Though he appreciated the outreach, Rosado thinks it came too late.
“Had I done this a year ago, I probably would not have left,” Rosado said. “But I’ve been crying at Pampers commercials.”
Roz Pichardo, founder of Operation Save Our City, said emotional and physical wounds are common in the Kensington outreach arena. She’s been stabbed with a used syringe. She’s tried to reverse overdoses — administering four or more doses of Narcan at once — and still watched the patient die in front of her.
“That’s the trauma we see as crisis responders in Kensington,” Pichardo said. “And Elvis has been in this game for a very long time.”
It hasn’t been easy for Rosado to move on. At his goodbye party, his Prevention Point colleagues constructed him a crown out of Narcan boxes.
“I think that was the first time in my life that I found myself speechless,” he said. “It was hard. It felt like I was leaving home.”
In his new gig, Rosado works just 40 hours per week, which leaves him a ton of free time compared to outreach work. He’s trying to fill the space with activities that make him happy. Rosado went to the gym for the first time in years last week — and he took a seafood cooking class at Kensington Quarters on Frankford Avenue.
Still, Rosado said he can’t move on completely from Prevention Point. He’ll still volunteer every once in a while, leading his signature Latino Teach class.
“It isn’t over yet,” Rosado said. “We’ve still got a ton of work to do, and a ton of lives to save.”