When Doug Wirth began attending UW-Green Bay as a transfer student, he was struggling.
Struggling with his father’s recent suicide. Struggling with his sexuality. And like so many college students, struggling to find his place in the world.
It was the mid-1980s, and the Fond du Lac native had just transferred to UW-Green Bay. He’d been a business/finance major at UW Oshkosh, but he craved a course of study that better aligned with his emerging sense of self. He found the Social Work program at UW-Green Bay — and with it, Professor Betty Baer.
“Betty took me under her wing at a really tough time in my life, where it could’ve ended up very differently,” said Wirth ‘89. “I was definitely struggling to find my way and make sense of the personal family tragedy I had experienced. The Social Work program gifted me with the opportunity to find myself, to discover a deeper calling, to reconnect with the things that mattered most to my heart and soul.
“Betty’s care and concern helped set me on a course to both heal personally and find a way to give back to the Green Bay community, to life, and now, on a national stage.”
That national stage is New York’s 6,000-member AmidaCare, an innovative health plan that serves individuals living with chronic conditions such as HIV/AIDS, serious mental illness, addictions and homelessness. As its president and CEO, Wirth is continually using his Social Work degree and experience to give back.
And although it’s been years since he called Green Bay home, Wirth is now giving back in a whole new way, providing a matching gift to endow a scholarship in Baer’s name. Wirth wants to ensure that Baer’s mantra of “think globally, act locally” reaches UW-Green Bay students for generations to come.
Baer passed away Sept. 10 at the age of 87. She knew Wirth was starting a scholarship to honor her, and she fondly recalled her relationship with him during a summer interview with UW-Green Bay News. The fondness, it was clear, cut both ways.
“Betty was a dynamic, passionate, courageous woman and a force of nature,” Wirth said, “who would ask the kind of questions that led you to find your internal compass and then get busy in the world. She was, for me, a very awe-inspiring mentor that grounded me in social work’s role as a social change agent (not social control).”
Making a career of care
Wirth developed his foundation in social work at a time when Green Bay was a very different place. He did his student work in what was then a gritty, run-down Broadway district, working with marginalized populations including the homeless and those living with HIV/AIDS. His undergraduate field placement at the United Amerindian Center — the precursor to today’s New Community Shelter — had Wirth running a five-tier homeless shelter program. Upon graduation, he was the vice chair of the Brown County Coalition on the Homeless.
“It was hard work,” Baer said, recalling the time during the UW-Green Bay News interview at her home. “If I could take you back to Broadway downtown, and what it was — it was really quite a crummy neighborhood. And that’s where Doug was willing to practice.”
While still a student, Wirth volunteered with the HIV/AIDS program on Broadway, serving as a pre- and post-HIV counselor and as a buddy who visited people in the hospital — primarily, he said, gay men who were dying of AIDS.
“I think it’s the combination of my own personal survival at a time when so many men were dying… and the desire to find purpose and meaning in my own life that called me into working with people living with HIV,” Wirth said, “and to really honor the teachings that I learned in my own family and Native People… to walk the path of giving and taking care of our neighbors, brothers and sisters.
“UWGB’s Social Work program is grounded in a social justice framework that asks us to become agents of change,” Wirth continued. “And that extends beyond race, culture, gender, sexuality or economic status. I’m nurtured everyday by my UWGB experience and training to help create a world that values all and considers the impact of our decisions on the 7th Generation. We need more caring professionals who are invested in building the capacity of human beings — and not just some people or some of the time.”
Wirth’s passion for helping others would continue when he moved east, first joining the American Psychological Association’s HOPE Program as a senior faculty member, teaching, developing and evaluating programs around HIV, addiction, homelessness, spirituality and homophobia. It would endure when he moved to New York City to become the director of government relations and public policy for a coalition of behavioral health agencies, and it would be furthered when then-Mayor David Dinkins appointed him as a health policy adviser for the city’s Title I Ryan White Planning Council.
Wirth continued in his advisory role under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, leaving the coalition of behavioral health agencies to become the executive director of the People with AIDS Coalition of New York. He merged that group with another HIV/AIDS organization, working himself out of a job to save money on administrative costs and thereby maximizing funds for direct services. As a consultant, Wirth worked with New York State to develop and advance a unique model of care — the Special Needs Plan (or “SNP”) — that advocates a broad, holistic continuum of care for those living with chronic conditions including (but not limited to) HIV. In 2006, he joined AmidaCare (then VidaCare), which is now the largest Medicaid Special Needs Plan in New York City.
“The professional education I received at UWGB, as well as my entry-level field work at the United Amerindian Center, really prepared me to excel in New York, to lead what is now the largest Medicaid health plan in the country focused on advancing wellness and life success for folks challenged by multiple chronic illnesses,” Wirth said. “We serve folks across all the five boroughs of New York City. Our annual operating budget is close to $400 million.
“The model of care outcomes include 94 percent of our members getting regular outpatient care at a medical home; hospitalizations are down by over 70 percent and emergency rooms visits declined by over 60 percent since 2008; and Medicaid cost savings of 35 percent over fee-for-service. In other words, regular/preventative care that produces wellness is great for the client/patient and really good for the taxpayer, too.”
AmidaCare takes a multifaceted and proactive approach to patient care, supporting access and engagement to care and medications as long as they are needed. When patients drop out, AmidaCare teams conduct street-based outreach, finding the individuals in the community and working to reconnect them with housing, care and services before they get sick and end up in the hospital. The program’s holistic nature goes beyond medical care and information to include promotion of healthier ways of living. AmidaCare’s “Live your Life” programs allow people with similar chronic health conditions to come together for yoga, African dance, nutritional cooking programs, “art expression” and more.
“We offer these programs and services to members because we’re investing in them,” Wirth said. “Neighbors matter in our little big city and their lives have meaning and purpose. Our mission is to help people be well so they can get about the business of living — finding that life purpose and ways of contributing to their family, to their neighborhood, to their church, mosque or synagogue, to their community — and ultimately, to the great City of New York.”
Fond memories, lasting impact
Wirth’s work in New York exemplifies what Baer termed a focus on macro practice — social work that emphasizes the good of the community, not just the individual. She said she hoped the students who receive the scholarship in her name would have that drive, as well, working for the betterment of the many, versus the few.
“I would tell them to look at what Doug has done,” Baer said. “He’s an ideal kind of social worker in that he cares deeply about people and he cares about making a difference in this world. He thinks about the larger environment in which people live and he wants to make a difference.”
Baer fondly remembered the years when Wirth was her student, including not just his drive and work ethic but the fun moments, too. She laughingly recalled a time when Wirth brought lunch for her and an administrative assistant — rather than a simple spread, he wheeled in an entire table, set specially for the occasion.
Still, Baer never expected that her former student would honor her in such a way.
“I was overwhelmed — really,” she said. “I was very fond of him as a student and he’s just a great guy. And of course I was thrilled and pleased.”
Baer and Wirth stayed in touch through the years, last meeting in person in New York in 2008. They had hoped to reunite again. Instead, sadly, Wirth traveled back to the Green Bay area for her funeral in September. He hopes her legacy lives on.
“It is a deep prayer of mine that people will come through the UW-Green Bay Social Work program and upon graduation work in the community in ways that contribute to wellness and healing around things like racism, sexism, sexuality, addiction, poverty and classism,” Wirth said. “If whatever I’m able to give to the scholarship in Dr. Baer’s name contributes to new people entering the profession, young people who will keep the profession’s true spirit fire alive, and supporting the Green Bay community that I still deeply love, it will be an honor to have been part of it. Please join me in this effort and honor a pioneer and the legacy of Dr. Baer.”
To contribute to the Dr. Betty Baer Endowed Scholarship, visit The UW-Green Bay Foundation website.