As a vaccine ambassador, she’s uniquely qualified to speak with people experiencing homelessness
“It was in me since I was a kid to help people,” said Dominai Taylor, one of Philly's first COVID-19 Vaccine Ambassadors.
Meet Dominai Taylor, a Philadelphia native and vaccine ambassador who speaks to people experiencing homelessness about the importance of getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
• Personal motivation: “With the pandemic going on, I saw how my grandmom suffered and my family suffered, and I didn’t want no one to have to suffer again.”
• On her vaccine victories: “I feel like I just won the jackpot. I’m like ‘Yes! I did it! I got one!’ I feel great, I really do.”
As one of Philadelphia’s first vaccine ambassadors, Dominai Taylor’s capacity for listening is equally as important as her compassion for those she listens to.
During her weekly visits to city-operated shelters to speak about the COVID-19 vaccine with people experiencing homelessness, Taylor, 38, who is currently experiencing homelessness herself, has listened closely as others have shared their fears and beliefs.
“Some of them say they don’t want the vaccine because of the Tuskegee [experiment]; they’re afraid that the government would put something inside of them they can’t get rid of,” she said. “Other people feel like they can heal on their own. And I get some people who say ‘I had it already. I kicked it before, I’ll kick it again.’ ”
In those moments, Taylor will often share her own story of losing her grandmother to COVID-19 last year. She’ll tell people what she learned during her training about how the vaccine was created, how it works, and what it actually does to the human body.
“We try to bring the wall down that they’ve built up,” Taylor said.
She may not always convince people to get the vaccine in the moment, but she hopes the conversations she has and the resource materials she provides plant a seed.
Since March, Taylor has planted more than 80 such conversational seeds and helped more than half a dozen people experiencing homelessness get vaccinated. For her, the most rewarding part is seeing kids get the vaccination.
“They be mad about that needle, but then they get their little candy and sticker and stuff and they’re happy,” she said. “This one little girl walked up to me after and put her little sticker on my sweatshirt. That made me smile.”
The Vaccine Ambassador Program, which is funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (also known as the CARES Act), engages people who have lived experience with homelessness to share information about the vaccine and their personal reasons for getting vaccinated with others who are experiencing homelessness and may have distrust in the medical system.
Ambassadors are paid $15 an hour, and those they sign up to get vaccinated receive a $50 American Express gift card.
The nationwide program is administered locally by the city’s Office of Homeless Services. Keisha Moore-Johnson, shelter services administrator for OHS, said dozens of people in Philly have been vaccinated through the ambassador program since outreach began in March.
“As an administrator, I can say it until I’m blue in the face how important it is to be vaccinated, but having someone from your peer group come in, who’s had the same lived experience as you share their story, it’s just that more impactful,” Moore-Johnson said. “Our ambassadors are really change agents in this pandemic.”
Taylor was one of seven members of Philly’s original vaccine ambassadors cohort and one of five who remain with the program today.
For her, this work is personal.
Growing up in West Oak Lane and West Philly, Taylor began doing outreach in middle school with the Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program (YO-ACAP), talking to her peers about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases. As an adult, she worked at a hair product store, helping people with cancer and alopecia pick out wigs, she said.
“It was in me since I was a kid to help people,” Taylor said. “I like to talk to people and make them feel comfortable.”
So when her counselor at Ife Wellness Center in North Philly, where she’s lived since October, suggested she sign up to become a vaccine ambassador, she didn’t hesitate.
Taylor knew she had an aptitude for outreach work and after experiencing homelessness for four years, she knew she could relate to those she’d be trying to help.
But above all, the driving factor in her decision was watching her own grandmother die from COVID-19 in March 2021.
“My grandmom was smart, outgoing, funny, and whenever I was going through something, she was there for me,” Taylor said.
After contracting COVID-19, Taylor’s grandmother was hospitalized in isolation. The last time the family got to speak with her was over a Zoom call.
“Her last words were for everybody to hang on and live their life. She shared her time as long as she could with us and it was time for her to go now, and we’ve got to learn how to let her go and be with God,” Taylor said. “That was the last time she said anything. I couldn’t believe my grandmom was gone.”
Taylor said she was angry at first, but she now channels her emotions to try to make sure what happened to her grandmother doesn’t happen to others.
“A lot of people are receptive,” she said. “I may get a few that reject even having a conversation, but it’s not a lot.”
Kris Pittman, Taylor’s case manager at Ife Wellness Center, said Taylor is making an impact beyond those she steers towards vaccination.
“It’s encouraging to other people around here, not just to us as staff, but from her roommates to other residents, now they want to inquire and join on. Now they want to be advocates, too.”
Taylor recently enrolled in the Community College of Philadelphia, where she plans to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a counselor. She’s also signed up to do outreach work with Pittman for PHLConnectED, helping community members get free internet access for their children.
“Every day, Dominai is doing something productive,” said David Hopkins, the program director at Ife Wellness Center. “She’s always involved in something or always being that voice of reason trying to help people out.”
Taylor said she fights to stay strong, so she can eventually be there for her three children, two of whom are under 18 and living with a relative until she can get back into stable housing.
“I just want for my family to know I’m not trying, I’m doing it,” she said. “This is the new me.”
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