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This Positive Life: An Interview With Evelyn Hernandez

September 15, 2011

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So, how has HIV changed you?

I have a unique and sincere appreciation for life. I used to take things for granted.

I remember driving on the New York State Thruway when I was still living in New York and working for the Speaker. The grass along the Thruway was so beautiful and the sun was shining down on it and it was just glistening. I think that's the first time I actually ever realized nature, and how beautiful nature is. It's about the little things. Also, I have an appreciation for people in general and the values that people bring to a friendship.

Unfortunately, it had to take a tragedy to happen in order for me to get to this point.

I think that I have a purpose in life and I managed to realize what that purpose is. Because of my deep faith, I wanted to help other women. Especially women here in Coachella Valley, which doesn't have the resources that larger metropolitan areas have. I did a lot of research. I became involved in my community, looking for resources. I saw that so many women were just being left behind.

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You looked for HIV resources for women living with HIV in Palm Springs and you didn't find anything?

We have HIV doctors here, but there weren't any support groups or support services for women to deal with the issues of how women experience more side effects with medications and how women also experience different challenges when they're dealing with HIV and AIDS. They will put their family first, before they will take care of themselves. They will do for others before they will take care of themselves.

So you started an organization?

Yes, I started Working Wonders in 2000.

Steve, my boyfriend, was the one who planted the seed in my brain. I remember at first I thought, "What, are you crazy?! I wouldn't know the first thing to do. I never started a nonprofit before. This is not in my scope of expertise." But I did a lot of research and just seeing the lack of services for women, particularly here in Coachella Valley, it really empowered me to do more for women. It was unfair. I understand that more men are impacted by the illness, but just because the numbers of women aren't as high, that does not mean that they do not deserve a place of their own.

So you found it very gratifying to help women who didn't have the resources that you did. I mean, you clearly had a lot of support and resources. But so many women with HIV don't.

Exactly, exactly. We are the first AIDS service organization here in Coachella Valley for women. We provide services. It started actually at my kitchen table, and I ran it from there for the first two years.

Oh wow.

It was amazing. We've been here for eight years now. We also specialize in services for at-risk youth, which is also an underserved population in our community. It's just been amazing, and so rewarding.

Every emotion you can imagine, I have felt through Working Wonders: fear, anxiety, excitement, happiness, sadness. Just every emotion possible, because you have those ups and downs. When you have a new agency moving into an area, of course, people perceive it as competition. But we're not here to be competitive. We're here to provide valuable services to a core set of individuals. These are marginalized people who otherwise don't feel comfortable anywhere else.

You've gotten some of these women to come out?

Oh, yes. We provide case management services. We have groups. We also send kids to camp Heartland. We have an extensive resources and referral network.

Does your organization serve a large Latino population?

Yes. There is a very large Hispanic community. I would say that the majority are Mexicans, Mexicans who work in the fields. We have migrant workers who travel throughout the state. We have a lot of undocumented individuals that we work with. We have a lot of monolingual Spanish-speaking individuals that we work with, and bilingual individuals, as well as individuals who speak English. And just understanding the different culture, because we have first-generation Mexicans who are here. Just respecting their culture. Also respecting the cultures of second, third, fourth generations. So, it's a constant balancing act.

Given your experiences in the Latino community, what needs to be done to address stigma?

More outreach needs to be done. We do go out into the fields and provide education programs. Not just about HIV/AIDS, but about basic health issues. Sometimes it's easier to come in through the back door than the front door. If people see HIV/AIDS, a lot of them just tend to pull back, "It's not me. That's not who I am." So we talk about basic issues, and then we tag HIV and AIDS to the issues, to the particular health issue that we're referring to.

Regarding the MSM [men who have sex with men] community, they have been in this fight for a very long time. They've managed to mobilize and organize a lot earlier. Because their community has been devastated. So, they have a lot of tools that they've created since the beginning of the epidemic. Now that we're seeing more heterosexual individuals, more Hispanics and African Americans, we are doing everything in our power to reach these communities and try to reduce the stigma, and the shame.

Why do you think that is? Do you think it's related to homophobia?

I think part of it has to do with homophobia. I think that some people have the perception that, if you have HIV, you did something wrong. And you deserved it, because you did something wrong. This is the perception. There are lots of families who have disowned their children. So these are a lot of the issues that we work with and deal with on a regular basis. This can happen to anyone though. This is one of the reasons why I thought it was important to tell my story. Share my story. So that communities can see that this can happen to anyone. It impacts everyone. It has no borders. It doesn't matter what color you are. It doesn't matter what socioeconomic background you come from. HIV/AIDS impacts everyone, and everyone needs to be educated on it. We have a lot of seniors, older adults, who are getting infected as well. This is a population who never thought that this would happen to them. But we have a woman in her 80s.

What advice would you give to someone who was recently diagnosed with HIV?

It's going to be challenging. It's going to be hard. Surround yourself with people who love you, who will support you. I have a lot of faith, and that helped me a great deal. Understand that you are living with HIV -- not dying of HIV or AIDS.

One more question. How do you adhere to your meds? What are some tricks for seeing your doctor on time, taking your meds on time, etc.?

It's always challenging, especially because of the side effects. I have my own little routine. I take my meds when I eat dinner. And that's what I do every single day. So, my recommendation is to take your medication when you're less stressed, like when you're at home. If you're working, there's so much going on in the office that it may not be a good time. Breakfast might not be a good time, because you might have to deal with side effects that will impact you throughout the entire day. I tend to take my medications at night, because if I do experience any side effects, I can sleep through them. Just adhere to your medications.

Also, bring a list of questions to your doctor. Because a lot of times you have questions that you forget when you're there. I'm prepared and I'm like, "Okay, these are some of the things I've been experiencing." Also, keep a journal. A journal is always good, especially for those emotional, challenging days. And write. And surround yourself with positive people. Keep the faith, because you can get through this.

What a great interview. Thank you so much.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.


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Reader Comments:

Comment by: KENYATTA (MIAMI, FLORIDA) Tue., Nov. 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm EDT
HI I REALLY ADMIRED YOUR STORY. YOU ARE VERY INSPIRATIONAL PLEASE KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK. IT IS HARD LIVING SOMETIMES WITH THIS SICKNESS BUT GOD KNOWS IT COULD BE WORSE. YOU TOUCHED MY HEART. STAY BLESSED AND FOCUSED.
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