Beatrice, who now lives in Allentown, Pa., entered HIV care eight years ago through her work with Allentown's Latino youth, for whom she coordinated an after-school prevention program. After earning her master's degree, she saw an ad for a position in HIV social services at Lehigh Valley Hospital. She applied and got the job. Since then, Beatrice has worn many hats. She has assisted HIV-positive clients in implementing personal treatment programs, provided prevention counseling and enhanced relationships between community organizations and her hospital. In January 2004, Beatrice began facilitating a program that offered HIV prevention support groups to correctional facilities, drug/alcohol treatment facilities and homeless shelters. In her role as case manager, she also frequently helps HIV-positive women, many of whose lives are "full of domestic abuse, oppression [and] insecurity," she says.
Through it all, Beatrice has maintained her dedication to the many vibrant cultures that make up eastern Pennsylvania's Latino community. She has turned her childhood dream to become a teacher into a reality, though it has taken a unique turn. By providing HIV education and assistance to both HIV-negative and HIV-positive people, Beatrice can express herself as a teacher. In addition to changing the lives of others, Beatrice also admits that it has changed her own life in many ways -- particularly in the spiritual sense. She now attends church more frequently, reads the Bible more often and thanks God each day for the opportunity to see a new sunrise.
How long have you been working with people living with HIV?
Can you describe how your work has changed since you first started?
I have changed the way I look at my life and no longer take things for granted. I have become more spiritual, attending church more and reading more of the Bible than I used to. As a child, I was always afraid of death, but now that I see death all the time, I look at my own life differently. I'm not afraid any more. Since I started working here, I thank the Lord every day that I see the sun come out.
If I were to follow you over the week, what would I see you do at work?
You would see me interview new clients, update demographics, including social, economic and medical information, and assist clients with medication and medical coverage, as well as utility and rent payment. I also refer them to food banks, drug and alcohol services. I help provide transportation, and I discuss with medical personnel my clients' social situation and medical conditions.
What's the best thing about your job?
The reward of knowing you have made a difference in somebody's life. The small things you receive from the clients or their families, like a thank you or even just a smile.
What's the worst thing about your job?
The pain of losing them through death.
What have been your greatest successes in your work? Greatest failures?
My greatest success has been being able to assist my agency in the developing and implementation of culturally sensitive practices.
I don't see any failures; there are simply things that I cannot control. I learned in this job that everything counts, and it does not matter how small it is. If I see failure, it is time for me to move on to another field.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a case manager/social worker?
The biggest challenge is being able to help my clients with their need given the limited funds available and all the new requirements from the funders. Also being able to maintain my patience and professionalism with a disrespectful and rude client.
For the most part, what do you think is the biggest risk factor for HIV?
Unprotected sex -- people have forgotten about AIDS because the media is no longer talking about it. Young people between the ages of 25 and 30 years old don't remember the peak of the epidemic. They haven't been impacted the way we were in the 1980s when people were dying around us. HIV/AIDS has become invisible. I teach support groups at night. When I show old movies like And the Band Played On -- oh my God, the younger people say, "That's what they look like?"
What is the most important/memorable/useful thing you have learned from the people you work with?
From my clients: To thank the Lord for every day he gives me. To live one day at a time. From my coworkers: It is okay to let go, protect yourself (emotional protection: it's okay to keep some emotional distance).
How do you maintain a positive outlook and avoid burning out?
By making every day fun. I am a big joker, with good taste. At every reunion with coworkers, we joke and laugh at our own mistakes. Always laugh at your own mistakes. I also keep a list of all my dead clients. Why? Well, I don't want to forget them, and I want to remember everything they taught me.
If you weren't doing what you are doing now, what would you be doing? Why?
I would be a teacher; I love to teach. My B.A. is in education. I also worked in Puerto Rico for two years as a teacher.
What do you think are the biggest problems people living with HIV face today?
Because HIV-positive patients are living longer, the problems they are facing are economics and complications from the side effects of the medications, as well as more mental health problems since patients are getting tired of the continuous medical care and medication treatment.
Do you see a lot of women now? What are their lives like?
I do see a lot of women. Their lives are full of domestic abuse, oppression and insecurity. The majority are very passive. They need domestic abuse services, counseling and referrals for shelters.
Do you work with any particular population of people? What are the specific challenges these people face?
Yes, the majority of my clients are Latinos, Spanish-speaking only. The challenges they face are finding bilingual mental health services. They have low-paying jobs and are uninsured or underinsured. Especially since Latinos are lumped into one group -- Cuban, Dominican, Mexican clients, even different dialects.
Who would you dedicate this award to if you could?
To my clients and to my three HIV case manager coworkers.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Patillas, Puerto Rico. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and I am the oldest of five children. I attended the University of Puerto Rico for my B.A., (biology) and finished my Masters in human services at Lincoln University in Lincoln, Pa.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
What kind of work did your parents do?
My mother was a housewife; she is 69 years old. My father was a teacher, graduated with a magna cum laude at the age of 58, with two B.A.s, in social work and education; he died at the age of 68.
When did you decide you wanted to be a social worker?
After moving to Allentown, Pennsylvania and seeing the need within the Latino community for an advocate, to help them understand the U.S.A. systems (education, health, social, ect.).
What other jobs have you had?
Lab technician at a pharmaceutical company in Puerto Rico.
What made you decide to do this kind of work?
After finishing my Master's I saw the advertisement and decided to give it a try and I was hired. When I was working in the after-school program, I had a prevention program with youth. That's where I got started. When I saw the ad, I realized that it's a field I would like to get involved with. I love it. It gave me a way of working with people, which I love, and I do know the Latino community very well.
Who were the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally?
Professionally and personally, I have to say my Dad has been the most influential. I learned a lot from him -- my work ethic, to always give myself 100% to everything I do, to take all my failures as learning experiences and that the only obstacle I have in life is the one I build myself. He also taught me to be honest, and to always be on time.
What do you do in your spare time?
Reading and home-improvement projects. Visiting antiques stores and yard sales.
Do you have a partner?
I have a boyfriend, who works as a truck driver.
I have four children -- three daughters: Aracelys, 31 years old, is a teacher; Arelis Celeste, 29 years old, works in a warehouse checking in merchandise; Emmalyn, 20 years old, is a receptionist; and one son, Alberto, 25 years old, is a construction worker. I also have five grandchildren: Miguel, 12 years old, Jacelys, 11 years old, Karelis eight years old, Angelina five years old, and Ana Beatrice, five years old.
I have a dog, three-year-old Chihuhua named GIO.
Where do you live? What kind of community is it? What do you like/dislike about it?
I live in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a very diverse city with 25% Latinos. It's a small city with the commodities of a large one. The only thing bad about Allentown is that you need a car; our public transportation is not the best.
If you had any place to live besides where you live now, where would you live?
In Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, unemployment is quite high and the salary for this kind of work is very low.
What's the best vacation you ever had?
My trip to Barcelona, Spain. I drove from Germany to Spain (18 hours). We crossed France, saw beautiful scenery and had a great learning experience.
What's currently on your bedside table for reading?
What book would you say has had the most impact on you?
I have to say Don Quixote, because of his adventurous and risk-taking personality. I'm a risk-taking person. I like the adventures.
What kind of music do you like to listen to? Who are the artists you listen to the most?
Salsa and Spanish soft pop, Jose Feliciano, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Tito Rojas, Tito Nieves, Tony Vega.
Anything else you think it would be important that people reading this interview know about you?
I'm an extremely strong woman with a very strong character, very assertive, outspoken and a fighter. I don't give up. I don't take no for an answer. This really helps with providing services. Although I have strong beliefs, I respect other people's beliefs and I try to meet them midway. I'm a very strong advocate for my own community.