Four years ago, 21-year-old college student Mackenzie Copley got tested for HIV outside a grocery store near Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Volunteers had set up a station offering shoppers a chance to be screened. Impressed by the work and passion behind the volunteers, he decided to ask the management about volunteering. A week later, he found himself regularly skipping class to join them.
As he continued the work, however, Copley discovered that while this particular organization was screening 60 people a day, it was also turning away 20 uninsured people each time. That didn’t sit well with him.
“It pissed me off,” Copley, now 25, reflects. “So, I asked management if we could start screening [uninsured people]. They said they were a private, for-profit company and they couldn’t make money off of those people, so, no, they couldn’t screen them. 21-year-old me said, ‘Well, fuck you! I’m going to go start a non-profit and screen everybody.’”
That’s exactly what he did. Three years later, Copley and cofounder David Schaffer launched One Tent, a D.C.-based non-profit offering free HIV screening and PrEP navigation in a ten-by-ten-foot canvas tent, pitched outside local grocery stores, convenience stores, and laundromats.
Pictured: Mackenzie Copley
To date, the organization has recruited 300 undergraduate volunteers from six partnering universities — Georgetown, Howard, George Washington, American, University of Maryland, and University of the District of Columbia. By mid-fall, Copley says it will have a total of 700 volunteers, and it plans to keep growing from there.
What makes One Tent particularly valuable is its cost-effectiveness. Copley explains, “We’re finding new cases of HIV for only half of the market average cost. It only cost us $8,500 to find a new case of HIV and link them into care, relative to $17,000 for everyone else,” and “we’ve screened hundreds of people so far.”
The organization plans on screening 4,000 in D.C. this calendar year, and hopes to expand into Prince George’s County as well as other parts of Maryland, a state that ranks fifth in America in new HIV diagnoses, and ninth in cumulative number of Stage Three HIV (AIDS) cases.
The endless hours behind One Tent have been paying off. But Copely admits, “No one has ever been paid by One Tent, so far.” That speaks to the level of passion within the messaging itself. One Tent’s devoted COO, Lindsey Sawczuk, volunteers to manage the volunteers while on a gap between a post-Bachelor's program and medical school.
Copley and Shaffer are creating a board of directors and strategizing around their dependence on college students. “We do screening on the weekends because that’s when our college kids are available,” Copley explains.
Pictured: David Schaffer
Another goal is to “de-medicalize” HIV screenings. “Our whole pitch, we try to be chill about it. If we bring our tent we say, ‘Hey, we’re doing free HIV screening. It only takes 15 minutes. It’s right over there.’” After all, “we’re screening out of a canvas tent. Let’s not be all hoity-toity about it. I like speaking in terms that I understand, and that other people understand, too.”
Gilead recently gave One Tent a $50,000 grant, the full amount it requested, to help fund their HIV screenings. The grant was exactly the helping hand Copley says the organization needed to become sustainable. It was also the sign he needed to quit his barbacking job to commit to One Tent full-time.
College kids are paying more attention to One Tent since it began collaborating with Via, a ridesharing app popular with students. Now, anyone who volunteers with One Tent will get 30 percent off their round-trip rides through Via.
The organization also recently teamed up with the hookup app Grindr. This fall, Grindr is posting One Tent locations to its users in the general vicinity, so they’ll know where to get tested. Notices go out every Friday with information for One Tent events that Saturday and Sunday. Testing is a great way to start (or end) a fun weekend.
Copley isn’t tied to just providing HIV testing in front of grocery stores, either. He’s willing to go where — and provide what — is needed.
“I want to provide any services that the community needs. And we need to be mobile and nimble to react to whatever they need. If that’s hep C, then we’ll do that.”
While it’s still taking baby steps now, One Tent is growing faster than anyone expected. Coply adds, “As we expand to new cities, one of my really big goals is to create jobs for 23- and 24-year-old kids that I would have wanted to have, but nobody was offering.”
“At the end of the day, we need to provide great services to people to increase access to care, access to HIV screening, access to prevention,” Copley says of One Tent’s mission. “But we also, number one, need to make sure that we’re keeping people safe.”