On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2019, Travis L. Williams American Legion Post 65 in Phoenix, Ariz., invited Dr. Warren H. Stewart Sr., the senior pastor at First Institutional Baptist Church, to give an address.
During his speech, Stewart challenged those in attendance to “lift, lower, smooth and straighten” ZIP code 85040, which includes part of South Phoenix, by MLK Day 2020. It was a call to improve the area, one that Post 65 has taken seriously through its various community projects involving local youth, law enforcement and others.
And as far as the members of Post 65 are concerned, their most recent effort – teaming up with the HeroZona Foundation and various municipal offices to provide thousands of free drive-thru COVID-19 tests to Arizona residents – is simply a continuation of meeting Stewart’s challenge. And it couldn’t happen at a more critical time.
Arizona is reporting all-time highs in COVID-19 patients using ventilators and occupying beds in intensive-care units. As recently as July 8, the state had as many new cases of the virus as the entire European Union while having 1/60th of the population.
“For us, it’s our fiduciary duty to serve the community that we reside in and do all of our partnerships with,” said Post 65 Second Vice Commander Alan “AP” Powell, who is HeroZona’s cofounding chairman. “Those ZIP codes have been underserved, and we want to make sure that they have the same assets and make sure that we can contribute to them. If we have the ability, we have the responsibility.”
HeroZona was founded with a mission to empower “our heroes in the community through entrepreneurship, employment, and education.” The foundation works with veterans, first responders and “those that bring social good to our future generations and under-served communities.” Powell said Post 65’s previous community assistance and support collaborations with HeroZona made getting the COVID-19 testing up and running a little easier. “When we actually said we were going to do the COVID stuff, we have such a following in the community and the respect … for being the post that gets stuff done,” he said.
With no high-capacity testing available in South Phoenix, where the majority of residents are Hispanic or black, the post realized something needed to be done to provide opportunities for COVID-19 testing. Post 65 Commander Jarvis Reddick said testing originally was going to be at the post, but after the effort was publicized came the realization that demand was going to be far greater than the facility could handle. An alternate venue was sought.
Powell reached out to South Mountain Community College. Salt River Project Power and Water, Maricopa County’s District 5 and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry were brought in to assist. Testing is conducted by Lab24, a family owned and Florida-based genetics testing laboratory that operates nationally with a focus in molecular testing. Funding for the effort came through the CARES Act.
The testing effort started in early July. It didn’t take long for the word to get out and the lines spanning miles to form at the site. Around 1,700 or so tests have been administered daily, with the hopes of surpassing 2,000. What started as a two-day-a-week effort has been expanded to 10 hours a day, four days a week through at least Aug. 7. Those wishing to be tested don’t have to exhibit any COVID-19 symptoms.
Reddick said he was initially surprised by the high demand but quickly realized why there were cars lined up at the testing site. “I had no idea it was going to be that big,” he said. “There are other testing sites around. But our site is offering free testing and no pre-registering. All you need is an idea. We found out a lot of other sites required having symptoms and pre-registering, and a lot of these people don’t have computers or aren’t computer literate. They weren’t going to go online to pre-register or make an appointment two or three weeks out.”
The impact of what Post 65 is doing didn’t really hit Reddick until area and national media outlets started covering it, and when he saw the reactions of those being tested. “Then it kind of dawned on me that this is bigger than even I’m thinking it is,” he said. “In my eyes, we’re helping the community as much as we can. But in other people's eyes, we’re doing something that is life saving for them.”
Powell is a Gulf War Army veteran with a long career as both an entrepreneur and as the chairman and CEO of AP & Associates, LLC, a strategic consultancy. For him, what he’s done with Post 65 and HeroZona is simply an extension of his military service.
“I fought in Desert Storm, and now I’m fighting on the inner-city streets of South Phoenix,” Powell said. “We try to uphold all the principles of The American Legion and the pillars of The American Legion. Our mission is we all served our country. Now we serve our community.”