CEO of South Dallas HIV agency among award nominees for upcoming Heritage Celebration
As Ronnie Lewis lay on his death bed, he asked his younger sister to do something about the terrible disease that was slowly killing him.
"He said: ‘Cheryl, this has happened for a reason. There’s got to be something good that can come of all of this. There’s got to be something you can do,’" recalled Lewis’ sister, Cheryl Edwards.
After the 39-year-old Lewis died from AIDS in 1995, Edwards began researching the disease and volunteering for local service providers.
Then, a few years later, she was laid off from her job in corporate management.
"When that happened, I just kind of said, ‘OK, now I can do what God wants me to do,’" Edwards said.
She initially thought her efforts would be geared toward gay men like her brother. But soon Edwards became aware of the epidemic’s devastating impact on another population, black women like herself.
"I didn’t want another agency that just duplicated other services in Dallas," Edwards said.
In 2003, she launched A Sister’s Gift, the South Dallas-based nonprofit that helps women with HIV/AIDS and their families. A Sister’s Gift provides everything from counseling and case management to bus passes, clothing vouchers and emergency financial assistance.
In 2007, A Sister’s Gift served 5,200 women, the vast majority of whom were African-American. That’s up from 274 women in the agency’s first year.
The dramatic increase mirrors national statistics, which show that while blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they now account for 50 percent of all new HIV infections. Meanwhile, black women are diagnosed with the disease at 23 times the rate of white women.
"I researched it and found that women’s needs are a lot different than a man’s needs," Edwards said. "We are filling a gap."
On Sunday, Feb. 24, Edwards will be among three nominees for the Juanita J. Craft Memorial Award being presented during the Legacy of Success Foundation’s 2008 Heritage Celebration Weekend. Craft was a civil rights pioneer from Texas who served on the Dallas City Council in the late 1970s.
Derrick Spillman, a spokesman for Legacy of Success, said Edwards’ nomination is in line with the black LGBT group’s new initiative of reaching out to women with HIV/AIDS.
"Some of these people who’ve been selected have been in the city of Dallas for years and have never won awards," Spillman said. "It’s good to be able to just say thank you and that your contributions have not gone unrecognized. We felt that her [Edwards'] story was something that needed to be heard."
For a complete schedule of Heritage Weekend events, go to www.losf.org.
‘They don’t need to know’
When Ms. Jones was diagnosed with HIV eight years ago, she didn’t get much counseling.
Instead, the Dallas County health worker who made the diagnosis handed Jones a stack of printed material and offered her a ride home.
Jones, who requested that her first name not be used for this story, recalled that on the way, they passed a drive-through fast food restaurant.
"It was devastating because I was just told that I had it and, do I want a hamburger?" said Jones, who added that she doesn’t know how she contracted the disease. "I wasn’t told that it wasn’t a terminal illness, so I thought I was going to die. She gave me a bunch of booklets and pamphlets and brochures and said, ‘Here, read this.’ But I was too devastated to do it."
A few years later, when the single mother of two young daughters had gotten behind on her bills, a friend recommended that she contact A Sister’s Gift.
"It was done in a timely manner, and it was very efficient," Jones said of the services she received. "I’ve always been treated with dignity and respect."
Above all, Jones said, Edwards and others at A Sister’s Gift have maintained her anonymity, which is critical for many black women with HIV/AIDS.
The agency is inconspicuously housed inside other offices at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, and you wouldn’t know it was there unless you were looking for it.
Jones said she still hasn’t told her parents or her daughters that she’s HIV-positive.
"We’re usually the pillars of the family, and we have a lot to deal with, and it’s really important that we’re not stigmatized because a lot of people are not educated about the disease," said Jones, who now volunteers for the agency.
"They don’t need to know," she said of her family. "It would only worry them."
Another client and volunteer at A Sister’s Gift, Felicia Finley, said she’s less secretive about her HIV-positive status.
"If someone allows me to open a door to talk about HIV, then I do," said Finley, who contracted the disease from her ex-husband and was diagnosed in 2005.
But Finley said that she understands Jones’ decision. Unlike breast cancer, for example, the subject of HIV/AIDS is largely taboo in the black community.
Finley said monthly seminars at A Sister’s Gift offer many HIV-positive women a rare opportunity to discuss the disease and connect with one another. "Being here allows them to know that it’s OK," Finley said. "This organization helps women to understand that you can live with this."
‘A tribute to Ronnie’
Almost 13 years after his death, Dorothy Lewis’ eyes still well up with tears when she tries to tell the story of her only son, Ronnie.
Ronnie Lewis had been working as an actor and model in New York City in 1993, when Lewis and her husband received a phone call from one Ronnie’s friends who told them he was very sick.
"It was almost like a nightmare, I guess," Lewis said.
She and her husband flew to New York and brought Ronnie back to Dallas. When Ronnie began taking medication and seeing a doctor regularly, his condition improved, and his parents thought he’d be OK. But then he got sick again.
Cheryl Edwards said her brother suffered from AIDS-related dementia, and his mind would drift in and out. But it was during one of Ronnie’s lucid moments that he gave Edwards the idea that eventually led to A Sister’s Gift.
Edwards, who’d majored in business management in college, said she started the agency with nothing more than her car, a cell phone and a listing in the Services Handbook, a guide to HIV/AIDS providers in North Texas.
It was 25 days before she received her first call, from a woman who needed groceries and was $400 behind on her electric bill.
Today, Edwards has four full-time employees in addition to a wealth of volunteers like Jones and Finley. A Sister’s Gift is funded primarily by the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, city of Dallas grants, and contributions from individuals and pharmaceutical companies.
This year, Edwards said she’ll also seek federal funding for the first time as she struggles to deal with the agency’s rapidly growing caseload. The fact that more HIV-positive women are seeking help is a sign that the stigma is waning, Edward said, but there’s still a long way to go.
"It creates an environment where women are afraid," she said. "We have so many women who’ve contacted us on their death bed. The stigma is killing us."
Dorothy Lewis said she admires her daughter for having the courage to try to address the problem.
"She has really stepped out there and done some things outside of what I would call the comfort zone," Lewis said. "I can’t really say how proud I am. It’s really a tribute to Ronnie."
For more information on A Sister’s Gift, go to www.asistersgift.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 15, 2008