Mar 16, 2022

Sunburst Projects Treats the Medically and Financially Needy

A chat with one of the capital region’s best-dressed rays of hope

By Ed Goldman

Jacob Bradley-Rowe may well be a super-hero for people who have sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)—which, if not treated, generally morphs into AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). 

Adding to their misery is that they have zero resources to pay for the prescriptions that can often help them lead what Bradley-Rowe calls “healthy, long and normal lives—but then, what’s normal?” 

Edgy Cartoon

Photo of Jake as himself by Kirk Bradley-Rowe

Bradley-Rowe has a playful sense of humor, and a cheerful mien. But when it comes to his work, as executive director of Sunburst Projects, he’s in dead earnest. The clinic operates in a surprisingly high-poverty area of Sacramento County—”surprisingly” because it also contains some of the region’s higher-priced homes and shopping venues for well-beyond solvent consumers.

“We are the only free walk-in testing clinic in this geographic area,” Bradley-Rowe says in a recent interview in the deliberately non-descript conference room of Sunburst Projects’ suite of equally non-ostentatious second-floor offices. The goal seems to be to maintain a low profile and conduct its caring services in an orderly but compassionate way. 

“I make it a point to greet every one of our clients,” Bradley-Rowe tells me. The age range of his clientele has been from 13 to 92 years old, with an equal number of women and men. He says the area and the clinic attract a large immigrant population: Afghanis, Burmese, Filipinos, Russian, African, African-American and Hispanic clients.

Created in 1982 to focus on children and families dealing with HIV/AIDS, Sunburst Projects expanded its services six years later. Twenty-two years ago, the nonprofit opened its offices in Sacramento to serve the HIV community in Sacramento, Placer and El Dorado counties. Two years ago, it extended its care to individuals living with HIV/AIDS with, as Bradley-Rowe says, “a special focus on long-term survivors, of which there are many more than people may realize.”

Sunburst’s menu includes a comprehensive mental health program, psychiatric services, nutrition, transportation, advocacy, childcare assistance, “and such quality of-life resources as clothing, shoes, household and school supplies,” says Bradley-Rowe. He manages these as well as what the social services field calls “wraparound services”—collaborations between various government agencies and organizations to provide behavioral healthcare and management—with a staff of 14, which includes a psychiatric-nurse practitioner.

Financial support comes in the form of a $970,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control, individual donations—Bradley-Rowe is an active fundraiser—and Ryan White Medical Case Management Services. The latter is the largest provider in the country of services for people living with HIV/AIDS. It was named for a heroic teenager from Indiana, a hemophiliac who contracted HIV and was barred from returning to his school in the early days of the epidemic. Community outrage reversed that and in 1990, the Ryan White CARE Act was signed into law by then-President George H. W. Bush. Tragically, it was not long after young White passed away.

At Sunburst’s clinic, people can be tested for HIV and receive the results in 20 minutes. Test results for other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are available “within a couple of days,” says Bradley-Rowe. Under the terms of Sunburst’s grant from the CDC, 200 tests must be conducted per year. You can learn just how dire the statistics are for the continuing threat of AIDS and other STDs, as well as get more information on the organization at its website:   

For someone who’s immersed himself in what stereotypically seem like urban maladies, it may surprise you to learn that Bradley-Rowe was born and raised on a 4,000-acre farm in Grass Valley—and that his day job, while serving initially as a volunteer board member of Sunburst, was with Tesla, albeit its farm-vehicle division. Not long after a difficult departure from Sunburst of its executive director, Bradley-Rowe was asked to step into the role, where he’s been since September of 2020.

Like all super-heroes, Bradley-Rowe has an alter ego. Unlike Superman’s Clark Kent (a reporter) or Spider-Man’s Peter Parker (a photographer), his is Precious Cargo, a drag queen. “I love to sew and have made about 800 dresses,” he says with an artist’s pride. He says he thinks of Precious Cargo “less as a drag queen than a charity queen” because he’s performed in the role for countless fundraisers. He says he’s even talked his husband of 10 years, Kirk Bradley-Rowe, into vamping with him on occasion.

Jake as Precious Cargo by Ron Comstock

Sunburst Projects will hold an open house on April 20 from 5 to 7 p.m. at its clinic (2143 Hurley Way, #240). Its second annual fundraiser in October is a golf tourney that will feature several of Bradley-Rowe’s fellow drag queens (my deployment of the word “fellow” has never felt more apropos). Its title: Drag Your Balls.

“I love to laugh and have fun,” he says when I laugh appreciatively at the name of his event. “But you know what’s really most important to me? Every day I leave here with a very warm heart because I know we’re helping people who’d lost hope.” Sounds like super-hero talk to me.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).

Yes, Virginia

A Weekly Blog by Virginia Varela

President, Golden Pacific Bank, a Division of SoFi Bank, Inc.

photo by Phoebe Verkouw

International Women’s Day is celebrated in March and its purpose is to celebrate women’s achievements and the fight for equality.

As we focus this month on women, I’d like to point out that strength comes in lots of different costumes and packages.

Often we focus on outwardly successful women. Forbes 100’s most powerful women is a list of recognizable politicians, businesswomen, investors, scientists, philanthropists, and athletes. Certainly these are planet game changers and the world is certainly a better place because of them.

But to me, strength sometimes comes in a humble costume.

We live in a tangled world and uncertain times. Women are often thrown into challenges that we couldn’t dream up even in our worst nightmares. And yet, especially we women, find a way to rise up.

My unsung heroes are single working moms, struggling refugees, those living in poverty or miserable conditions, not by their own choice or lack of will, but merely because they were dealt a bad hand.

I find mentors in all shapes and sizes. I find wonderful women down the street, on the street, or in a wheelchair.

Don’t ever underestimate our power. I’m proud of my gender, and proud of every struggling female who puts one foot in front of the other every day to help out her family and others before herself.

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