Q&A with Assistant Director Randy May

January 8, 2020

Randy May was raised to value service to the community and compassion for his neighbors. These values have fueled his career choices throughout his life, from practicing clinical family therapy and leading community-based HIV/AIDS programs to building organizational capacity to lead public health initiatives in other countries.

And it played a major role in his decision to become Konbit Sante’s assistant director in December, which meant leaving South Africa for a six-month stint at the U.S. office in Falmouth, Maine.

“I’ve always had an empathy for people,” he said. “It’s always been something I’ve felt I had to offer, and it’s very important to me.”

Born and raised in Columbus, Indiana, May grew up working for his father’s landscaping and nursery business. The experience of being an exchange student to Norway in high school exposed him to a worldview beyond the Midwest, and month-long college trips as part of medical teams to Guatemala and Honduras ignited a desire to work in the global health field.

May received a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from DePauw University and came to Maine while in graduate school to train and eventually work for Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in its youth-at-risk and incarcerated youth programs. He followed this by joining a nonprofit in the Midcoast area to provide intensive home-based family therapy to families at risk.

After completing his Masters of Social Work in clinical social work and family therapy at Washington University, he returned to Maine and worked at substance abuse and mental health agencies providing clinical services to youth and families in Bath, Lewiston, and Auburn. While he found this work rewarding, he increasingly wanted to do something larger and more community-based.

“I saw in my practice a lot of really dedicated mothers trying to provide for their kids, and there were a lot of things making it impossible for them to provide access to health care, a safe home, and food on the table,” he said. Change also had to occur in the community in order to have these mothers be successful.

At the same time, the AIDS epidemic was at its height in the U.S., and life-saving antiretroviral drugs were just starting to become available to the general populace. This meant the AIDS mortality rate would begin to decrease dramatically, but it also meant that there was a greater need for long-term care—not only physically, but mentally and financially.

May had worked on the periphery, including volunteering with Merry Meeting AIDS Support Services in Brunswick, and decided to dedicate himself full-time at the Frannie Peabody Center in Portland. Founded by its namesake after her eldest grandchild died of AIDS, the Peabody Center was the first in Maine to provide comprehensive HIV/AIDS services at all levels—community awareness and outreach, prevention, case management, behavioral health services, and more. May served as a mental health and substance abuse HIV case manager for 2 years, then as director of programs for 11 years.

“There were a lot of people I knew who had died, and there were some really dedicated people here in Maine who were about making changes in the policies and making sure people got good care and had comfortable, dignified deaths,” he said. “It was important work, and I was very honored to be part of people’s lives and to have worked with some incredible people.”

By 2008, the number of AIDS deaths had declined significantly in the U.S., but the epidemic was still raging elsewhere. May went to Ethiopia to serve as deputy country director for the National Alliance of State & Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD). He spent more than 9 years with the organization, during which he received promotions to associate director/country lead and to director of international operations, both based out of South Africa.

Among the improvements that he helped implement at NASTAD was opening a central office and hiring 37 public health staff for 5 regions of Ethiopia, adapting evidence-based intervention practices and community health planning with African public health colleagues, and facilitating and supporting implementation of activities in countries around the globe, including Haiti.

“I started out as a social worker but ended up as an operations person just because I get the strategy and the mission, but I also get how you have to have these systems in order to implement it effectively, be in compliance, get further funding, etc.,” he said. “I like working with teams of people towards a mission.”

May has been an admirer of Konbit Sante since its early days, and has known Executive Director Nate Nickerson since the latter worked for the City of Portland’s Public Health Department in the 1990s and early 2000s. That admiration grew when he saw Konbit Sante’s work in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and the cholera epidemic that followed.

May’s responsibilities at Konbit Sante are to build capacity, manage U.S. operations, and support the Board of Directors in leadership recruitment, transition, and governance.

“I think it’s a nice match,” he said. “It gives me the opportunity to do some fun work with people I know, with an organization that I care about and a mission that’s very much aligned with some of the things I’ve done in the past.”

It’s uncertain what will happen at the end of May’s six-month stint. For one thing, his home and spouse are still in South Africa. But he’s committed to making as much of a difference as he can while he’s with Konbit Sante.

“It’s not about me. For me, the work is not about that,” he said. “The work is about standing side by side with other people and trying to make a better world.”

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