Evelyn Hernandez Valentino -- No Longer Alone in the Desert
One Woman's Quest to Raise Awareness
Evelyn Hernandez Valentino is humble enough to pick up the phone herself rather than let it go into voicemail, even though she founded and directs the non-profit agency Working Wonders in the desert land of Southern California. Besides, the agency's staff of three is down to two, plus volunteer speakers and educators.
"Working Wonders" alludes to her strong faith in God. She turned to that faith and prayed for guidance, and Working Wonders was born. She loves the fact that her agency is located in Cathedral City. "This is my purpose in life," she said.
That's a blessing for a woman who came to California not knowing if she was going to live or die.
Evelyn Hernandez grew up in an impoverished Puerto Rican community on New York City's Lower East Side, raised by her mom and alcoholic father, who "managed to get well," she says in her bio. "[My] family struggled financially but always managed to make ends meet," she wrote.
Later, as a young adult, she developed a passion for advocating for those who are less fortunate. Her advocacy career led her to a position on the staff of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Two years into her state advocacy job she married her longtime boyfriend in 1993 and two weeks later, he learned he was HIV-positive. Hernandez Valentino expected her own test results to be just fine, but they weren't. She also tested positive. Worse, her husband quickly became ill and died later that year. She was a bride and a widow in the same year, at the age of 29.
She continued to hold down her job, but her experience helps her to understand the needs of the positive women she serves today. Like herself, she said, women often don't recognize the HIV risks in their lives. (After her husband's diagnosis, he realized he was at risk by sharing needles for steroid use in his gym.)
She came to Los Angeles in 1998 when her health was poor, and where she had family members who could help take care of her. Two brothers already there had urged her to move from New York. She spent a couple of years doing legal advocacy for Crystal Stairs, a non-profit child care resource and referral agency, but that time included a medical leave. After moving to the nearby Palm Springs area in 2000, she joined several committees where she could advocate on behalf of people living with HIV, but came to feel that there wasn't enough work being done on behalf of women, children, and families. It is also where she met the man she is still with today, in a "very loving relationship," she wrote, after expecting the worst when she disclosed her HIV status.
A pharmaceutical representative in the area, a gay man, said that at first the gay community felt threatened by Hernandez Valentino and her quest to establish her own agency, which would compete for funding with existing work being done in the GLBT community, but came to accept her, including recognizing her by giving her a seat of honor in the local Pride parade. He urged Positively Aware to tell her story.
Through Working Wonders, women and youth hear about HIV and risk. Speakers go out to schools and community forums and tell their story about living with HIV. If attending a forum or workshop at Working Wonders, women can leave their children in the agency's play room. Recently, the agency received the green light to talk to 7th graders in the public schools, kids who are 13. This is the first time that adolescents this young in this region have been allowed to hear a presentation on HIV, said Valentino Hernandez. She estimates that they have reached 3,500 individuals in the past 24 months.
"We address issues that affect women: domestic violence, dating violence, survival sex," she said. "We see everyone as potentially at risk. We have an open discussion about forced sex, economic dependence, negotiating safer sex and other things women need to know."
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