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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for Women
Michelle Lopez Alora Gale Precious Jackson Nina Martinez Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga Loreen Willenberg  
Michelle Alora Precious Nina Gracia Loreen  
First Person: Kathleen Gerus-Darbison

January 13, 2009

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Could you share a little personal information about yourself?

I love to travel. I have been in many countries around the world and love to learn other languages and customs. I work part-time as a tutor, teaching groups of students learning German. I also tutor special needs students in psychology and sociology.

I became an ordained minister last year so that I can help people create personal ceremonies for weddings, funerals, baptisms, house blessings and so on. This brings me great personal fulfillment while making others' wishes come true.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Detroit, Michigan and moved to the suburbs when I was four years old. I grew up in Sterling Heights, where we were surrounded by farmer's fields and lots of trees for climbing. I went to public school and then worked my way through college.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

My first interest was in medical technology. Looking at things under a microscope and helping diagnose illnesses really intrigued me. But I also had a great interest in writing and languages. Ultimately I got a Bachelor's degree in psychology.

What kind of work did your parents do?

My dad worked in data processing for the Ford Motor Company until he retired. My mom was a homemaker and avid volunteer for many organizations. Both my parents are loving and generous people. They opened our home to anyone who wanted or needed a safe and loving place to stay. When I was in high school, we had two exchange students live with us for a year. That was fun because we already had six kids in our family. The more the merrier!

What kinds of work have you done?

When my late husband and I got married, I did custom computer programming and training for small businesses. I have worked as clerical staff in several different companies. Then I began my work as an HIV educator. I did that for 13 years. Now I work part-time in a retail store and as a tutor. I have spent most of the last 15 years serving on several national volunteer boards, which is very fulfilling.

Who were the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally? Why?

The people who have been most influential to me personally are my parents, who taught me to be generous, non-judgmental and a survivor. My friend Deb has been my spiritual mentor. My daughter Stephanie has given me hope when there was none, and has taught me more than I can put into words. All my friends in the hemophilia community who have gone through this difficult journey with me, especially Lisa, Jill, Ray and Cathy.

Professionally, Candice's guidance and support has helped me become a better teacher. She showed me new ways to reach people.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Crossword puzzles, solitaire, read, read, read. I like to write and also teach myself new languages. Currently, I am working on sign language and Spanish, with a little bit of Latin and Hebrew on the side.

Tell us a little bit about your husband.

"Clinical skills alone don't make someone a good doctor -- I've fired doctors because they weren't listening to me."

My current husband of seven years is a wonderful human being. He knew me growing up; their family lived down the street from ours. Bill was my older brother's best friend. At that time, the difference in our ages and attitudes meant we were only good friends. We always liked each other and respected our differences. When his family moved back to Canada, we still always kept in touch.

Years after my husband died, Bill and I started emailing each other. We would talk on the phone and over the Internet for hours at a time. We shared important issues with each other. It became apparent to both of us that we had a very strong connection. In 1998, he moved back to Michigan and we got married. He understands me like no one else does. Bill made a conscious choice to marry a woman with AIDS who had a young teenage daughter. That is brave! He makes me laugh and we like to do many of the same things, like go white water rafting, read and watch sci-fi stuff and travel. He has been a true angel in my life!

Tell us about your daughter.

I have one daughter, Stephanie who turned 21 on April 18th. She is working and going to college in Florida. I am so proud of her! She has been through so many negative things in her life, but still holds her dreams in her heart.

Do you have pets?

Bootsie, a miniature Pinscher. She has lived with us for three years now. She is not a dog; I am convinced that she is a little person wearing a black fur coat. She has a great personality and brings me much joy -- when she is not eating something of mine.

Where do you live? Describe your community.

I live in Macomb, Michigan, which is 22 miles north east of Detroit. This area was orchards and farms up until about 10 years ago. Now it is growing so fast that they have to widen all the roads. Our neighbors are friendly people. In our neighborhood, there are a lot of young children, which I like.

If you could live anyplace besides where you live right now, where would you live?

I would live in Florida so I could be close to my daughter. My husband and I are looking for jobs down there so we can make this a reality.

What's the biggest adventure you've ever had?

Life. Without sounding silly, my whole life has been one wild ride. There have been many exciting and joyous parts -- finding a special person to share my life with, traveling to so many places and meeting new people, having my daughter and becoming a parent. That is some adventure!

There have also been many incredibly sad and depressing parts as well: A terminal diagnosis at age 26, losing my husband at 34, dealing with major health issues for so many years, losing so many people to AIDS and hepatitis C, having to say goodbye to my father whom I loved so much. How can I pick what my biggest adventure has been? It's impossible.

What are you currently reading? What book or author, if any, has had the biggest impact on you?

Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden. I got this as a gift from a very special friend of mine. I am just starting it. The Celestine Prophecy series by James Redfield had a major impact on the way that I think and approach my life and my interactions with other people.

What kind of music do you like?

I love all kinds of music. Some I like to sing along with, some I like to dance to and others I like because they are strictly instrumental. I love Jim Croce, John Denver, James Taylor, Carly Simon and Carol King, to mention a few. Latin music is very energizing, so currently I'm listening to that the most.

Anything else you'd like the people reading this article to know about you?

I am humbled by the fact that a friend of mine thought enough of me and took the time to nominate me for this award. I only hope that I can live up to this honor. I would like to spend the rest of my life devoting my time to helping others, not just people living with HIV infection, but all those who are stigmatized and disenfranchised. We must help one another. After all, we are all made of the same stuff.

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