Because of W.O.M.E.N.
Catherine Wyatt-Morley Proposes an Innovative Research Project as a New Chapter for Her Non-Profit
by Chael Needle
Tragedy to triumph—that’s the subtitle of Catherine Wyatt-Morley’s recently published account of her journey so far as HIV-positive. It’s also a portrait of her dedication to helping and amplifying the voices of other women, a core value that blossomed into an AIDS services organization, W.O.M.E.N. (Women On Maintaining Education and Nutrition) nineteen years ago.
A single moment in 1994, when she learned she was positive, spun her into a lonely sort of hell, as she calls it, one that shook her foundation and her family life. Then, slowly, the moment turned into hours and days and weeks of self-education about the virus. She needed knowledge; she needed to survive.
At the time, her husband, from whom she contracted HIV, was isolating himself in his own struggle. Her workplace and church gave her the cold shoulder. Thoughts of self-harm battled, ferociously but unsuccessfully, with Catherine’s will to care for her children, to accept her self, and to give others the support that she so desperately needed in the early days. Tragedy, she was convinced, could be transformed.
She could choose life, and so could others. She could critically reassess and relaunch her guiding stars (for Wyatt-Morley, her spirituality and her commitment to the work of care), and so could others find and refine their purpose in life. Service gaps could be squelched; health disparities could be lessened. Emotional wellness could be a springboard for empowerment.
Her triumph is trumpet-worthy. From her creation of W.O.R.T.H. (Women on Reasons to Heal), the first HIV-positive women’s support group in Nashville, Tennessee, to her current status as a leader in community-based HIV/AIDS services (she was honored by Self Magazine just last year with a “Women Doing Good” award), Wyatt-Morley has accomplished great things through little successes, and it’s those little successes that sustain her in her work.
For instance, she has forged mutually emboldening relationships with clients and, as a result, considers herself truly blessed. “We lost a very dear friend of mine just last week to the consequences of HIV. She died of an AIDS-related illness and she had such a heart for advocacy and such a heart for service and she loved the Lord with all of her heart and soul. It’s those types of individuals who keep me going.”
“She was more than a client,” the founder and CEO of W.O.M.E.N. says, continuing her thought. “I tell my clients all the time: The only difference between you and me is that I’m on this side of the desk, because I’m dealing with the same things you’re dealing with. Our clients become important individuals in my life. I don’t shut them off at 5 o’clock. Each death is still very difficult to deal with. And it keeps me going [knowing] that one life has been saved, one person has changed their life because of something I may have said, something they may have read, or, more importantly, their engagement with W.O.M.E.N.
“When I see kids eating because of W.O.M.E.N. and what we have done to serve these kids and serve their parents, that keeps me going,” she says, noting that the Nashville Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and the Nashville Metropolitan Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., have helped stock the non-profit’s pantry to the rafters for the past twelve-plus years.
Directly funded through the CDC to do HIV prevention outreach (the only organization in the state that is), W.O.M.E.N. conducts this work through its RESPECT and Community PROMISE programs, which rely on role models and peer advocacy to reach African-American women ages eighteen to thirty-two who engage in high risk behaviors that put them in danger of contracting STDs and/or HIV. W.O.M.E.N. supports women by providing testing, counseling, and referral services as well. But, says Wyatt-Morley, these messages are easily lost on individuals if they are presently more worried about feeding, clothing, and housing their children.
“W.O.M.E.N. provides an array of services that far exceed HIV, because as a mother I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to have three little kids to feed and be HIV-positive. Feeding my children was way more important to me than the fact that I was HIV-positive. Keeping a roof over my children’s heads was way more important than taking an antiretroviral. Until those issues were addressed and dealt with, as a mother I didn’t care about HIV, I didn’t care about [staying on top of treatment]. When an organization can be on the other side of that and provide services for that woman and her family, then she can concentrate on taking care of herself. She can concentrate on antiretrovirals. She can concentrate on adherence, concentrate on going to the doctor’s.
“So it is extremely important for us to have the resources to be able to do those small, tangible things in order to get her to where she needs and where she wants to go,” she says about the organization’s client-centered mission, noting that the pipeline for delivering those resources is sorely lacking.
Over the past two decades, Wyatt-Morley has nurtured W.O.M.E.N. and, with the help of staff, volunteers and clients, has sustained and expanded its services in an effort to create a safe place for women, mothers, and their families. W.O.M.E.N. provides support for women (and men) from all walks of life and experiencing all different levels of need. The non-profit offers everything from support groups, mentoring, and food and nutrition services to emergency housing referrals and helping women to leave domestic violence situations.
W.O.M.E.N. seeks to destigmatize HIV/AIDS by participating in grass-roots campaigns like “HIV Looks Like Me” and to empower women with cheeky initiatives like Operation Panty Power (O.P.P.), which distributes new panties to women eighteen years of age and older along with an educational message that encourages protection and empowerment.
The non-profit reaches out to the community at health fairs and seminars; it educates through community forums and the media.
Over the years, Wyatt-Morley herself has produced a video, Reasons To Live: Women, Their Families and HIV, and wrote two books, AIDS Memoir: Journal of an HIV Positive Mother and Positive People: Combating HIV and AIDS, before adding a third to bookshelves with My Life with AIDS, Tragedy to Triumph.
But the triumphs are hardly over. In fact, Wyatt-Morley is building on the accomplishments and knowledge base of W.O.M.E.N. and shepherding the non-profit in a new direction—a residential and behaviorial research community called W.O.M.E.N.’s H.O.U.S.E., embedded within the W.O.M.E.N.’s Research, Education and Development Institute (REDI).
The core values of the project include qualitative research and creating an environment that facilitates the nurturance of community, emotional wellness, and empowerment. The communal approach would provide eighteen African-American women living with HIV or AIDS, ages eighteen to fifty, with a variety of programs to assist them with health, economic, psychosocial and family issues. An additional thirty participants would also be enrolled.
“Over the course of the past nineteen years, it has become very clear to me that, for women, there has to be something else that has to be put in place. W.O.M.E.N.’s H.O.U.S.E. is a holistic approach to care, enveloped in case management and research infrastructure. And what we’re proposing to do with W.O.M.E.N.’s H.O.U.S.E. has never been done,” says Wyatt-Morley, excited about the innovative approach.
“Most of the time, in urban as well as rural environments, you have scattered services. We’re proposing to offer something that is unique in and of itself in that all of those services will be under one umbrella, along with an extensive educational component,” she says about a proposed curriculum that would cover essential lessons for living and thriving with HIV/AIDS.
The primary goal is to help women achieve a deeper understanding of themselves, and to translate that deeper understanding into informed and committed action within their daily lives. “For example, we’re always telling women (and everybody, men and women) that they need to adhere to the medication, but, if that person doesn’t understand the reasoning behind adherence, then it’s going to be difficult for her or him to adhere,” she says about bridging that gap between knowing and doing. “So, W.O.M.E.N.’s H.O.U.S.E. will offer a myriad of services under one roof that will help women not only extend their understanding about disease state, and where they are [in relation to it], but also economic development and a multitude of other services.”
Just as some patients have gaps in HIV literacy, so do researchers when it comes to behavioral health. Questions like “Why do women think as they do?” and “Why are African Americans disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS?” often get glossed by big-box answers, like “poverty” and “discrimination.” And while Wyatt-Morley believes that these systemic forces do indeed impact women’s lives, addressing them falls flat if women do not take an inventory of their own perspectives about and analyses of their own individual negotiations of daily life.
Behavior cannot be easily categorized, and, even when it is, the checked boxes (African American; woman; heterosexual) have zero capacity to explain anything on a personal level. Everybody is not drumming to the same beat, says Wyatt-Morley. If you approach healthcare like that, “you lose out on the individualization of that person. There’s a gap that’s missing. Here, our mission is to bridge those service gaps. And that is what we’re proposing to do. HIV has to be individualized. The HIV in me is not the same as it is in you, so, in our opinion, we need to approach it individually.” In other words, everything from adherence practices to empowerment would be more effective if custom-made, not one-size-fits-all.
In this research project, “we will be able to go directly to women and ask them, ‘Why did you become HIV-positive?’ or ‘Why did you stay in an abusive environment when you know that it is not healthy for you and that your children are watching you?’” Like the myriad of patterns created by brightly colored chips with each turn of a kaleidoscope, the research will strive to crystallize the finer points embedded in personal histories and experiences.
“So, we will be able to glean extremely important information from women while they are learning to develop economic and other skills. [These skills are an essential component] because we want to set the women up to be successful, exiting W.O.M.E.N.’s H.O.U.S.E.,” says Wyatt-Morley, who envisions the take-a-walk-in-my-shoes project will be able to delve into as-yet undiscovered layers of behavioral data.
W.O.M.E.N. hopes to partner with researchers who will use their expertise to help develop this deeper understanding of behavioral health. The research would be ongoing, and would shift and change as new protocols are developed and new individuals come to stay at W.O.M.E.N.’s H.O.U.S.E. Perhaps Vanderbilt University or Meharry Medical College would make good partners, says Wyatt-Morley, offering exemplums of the high level of rigor that the organization wants to attract.
“It’s important that the research be integrated into service delivery, so it’s not something that’s a stand-alone. We want the researchers involved. We want them to become part of the fabric, so they can get the true data that we’re trying to get. We want our researchers to be extremely involved because we want them to understand why a woman is thinking the way that she is thinking. And the way to understand why she’s thinking the way that she’s thinking is by spending time with her and watching her and observing her in an environment we will be creating for her.”
W.O.M.E.N.’s H.O.U.S.E. will also strive to accommodate differences, not hammer them out of the picture. “So, if a woman is coming from Los Angeles, that will probably be a different woman with a different background and a different experience than a woman who is coming from Mississippi.,” says Wyatt-Morley. “So we want to try to make sure that that woman from Mississippi—her experiences, her mindset, her reasoning, are captured just like the lady who’s coming from Los Angeles.”
Wyatt-Morley emphasizes that much of the planning and preliminary work for the research project has already been done. It’s an idea she has been fine-tuning for the past eighteen years. The surveys, presentation Q&As, the conversations, and the input, accumulated over the years, have convinced W.O.M.E.N. that the research is needed—and desired.
“Funding is the only thing standing between us and implementation. Everything else—including the house—is in place,” she adds.
The knowledge/action gap exists not only on an individual level but also in larger healthcare-delivery structures, as well. “In the wider conversation, we hear a lot about the disproportionate impact on the African-American community and the disproportionate impact that has created this huge gap in services and in resources in the South. We hear about those things, but I’m not actually seeing where there’s more targeted efforts in the South. If we realize and know that there is this tremendous disparity within the South, my question would be: ‘Why are not more resources targeting the South?’
“Efforts need to go where gaps are identified, where services have failed, where increases in HIV have been identified. Our services need to be intensified and increased in those areas in order to achieve the goal that we all want to achieve, which is the reduction of HIV across the board. And, I don’t see that happening. I’m not saying there’s nothing happening, but not enough efforts are being put into areas that have already been identified. There are areas in rural Alabama that have been identified that I go to quite often. These people aren’t getting services. There are areas in the Mississippi Delta that have been identified but these people aren’t getting services. So there are areas in the South that have been identified but the delivery and the resources aren’t following what the data actually says.”
Knowledge cannot be left to rot away in charts and graphs and PowerPoint slideshows. It needs follow-through. And leaders like Catherine Wyatt-Morley and organizations like W.O.M.E.N. have the expertise to bridge those gaps—and, along the way, help to empower women, and others, to achieve the health and wellness they so very often sacrifice to put others first.
For more information about W.O.M.E.N. and its upcoming twentieth anniversary, log on to www.educatingwomen.org.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.