A Not-So-Simple Journey
The Impact of One Man’s Diagnosis Fuels His Crusade to Benefit Others
by Dann Dulin
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]all it luck. Call it fate or destiny. Better yet, fortitude. Had Jerry Hughes, founder and executive director of the Hughes Foundation (HF), not been scheduled to fly to India in 2004, the organization may have never been established!
In May 2004, preparing for a trip to speak at a 300-bed Christian youth camp in Nagpur, Jerry went to his doctor for vaccinations. His doctor advised taking a rapid result HIV test. Within twenty minutes, Jerry learned that he was positive. It hit him hard like a swift streak of lightning.
After his initial shock, he had to decide whether he should travel to India as planned.
Jerry first spoke at the camp a year earlier. Despite his extreme trepidation, Jerry decided to keep his commitment. “I’m a loyal person and I worried more about letting the youth down. I pushed myself to go. I’m used to challenges and I tend to deal with a crisis better than I do picking out a pair of shoes in the morning.”
When he returned to the States, Jerry decided to create the Hughes Foundation. It was incorporated in 2005.
Jerry was raised by his mother, sixteen at the time of his birth, and Grandma Hughes, in a small farming community in Steamboat Rock, Iowa. Growing up among devout Christians, he was taught early on to help others. Mentors in the town of 300 also greatly influenced his moral outlook. All through high school he participated in Mission trips, even driving to Rio Grande City, Texas/Mexico, to construct buildings or hold children’s camps. He was an only child with an absent father whom he never knew. Jerry believed the church congregation viewed him as a “project” that needed to be “saved.” Also, being gay didn’t help and neither did being HIV-positive. In fact, many family members have rejected him due to the virus.
For years he struggled with issues of self-worth. While studying at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota, he racked up credit cards buying friendship and love, and it left him $150,000 in debt. (“I was scared people would stop being my friend if I didn’t wine and dine them or buy them gifts. I was struggling with abandonment issues back then.”) He graduated in May 1996, with a BS in Business Management (being a Christian college, Jerry was required to have a degree in bible studies as well). He landed a position at American Express Financial Advisors in Minneapolis, where he lived for many years. (In all, Jerry spent ten years in the corporate world.) In 1999, he lost his job. Still in debt, he became an escort for several months. His clients were mostly corporate married men.
Jerry then signed an eighteen-month contract as a volunteer manager with the Billy Graham Association for an international evangelical conference called Amsterdam 2000. He oversaw 800 volunteers from forty-three countries for a three-week conference. (Through this, he met his current Hughes Foundation partnerships in Namibia and India.) After this conference, Jerry increased his international speaking engagements. He began writing his memoirs and titled it Living The Positive Life; however, the writing project is now on hold so as to focus more on HF.
Today, Jerry is well and on a drug regimen of Truvada, Presizta, and Norvir. In fact, as of September, he quit his job, sold his car, and other belongings and moved to India. His mission is to create a stronger HF presence. He supports himself on his savings and some public donations. He does not receive a salary. After a twenty-one-hour flight, two suitcases, and one carryon, Jerry arrived in India.
Dann Dulin: You survived the transition and now aboard a life-changing adventure. How are you doing in the land of Bollywood?
Jerry Hughes: Everything is going great. I am full of purpose, and my challenge is fundraising. India is home to me, though I don’t know for how long. I never meant to move here permanently, but who knows?! I came here in faith, having sold most of my worldly possessions. I feel like a monk. A team of three has become the family I never had, along with thousands of kids that I get to serve. I always wanted kids of my own but this is better. Still there are days when I lay on my cot and say to myself, ‘What the f— did I just do?’
You moved there to take HF to the next level and establish Big Brother India, an extension of HF. Can you elaborate?
We have a program called Wheels of Hope, which provides HIV-positive children with transportation to reputable doctors. We also mentor children who need help with their education and physical needs such as food and clothing. An HIV care facility is being planned where trusted volunteer doctors can administer medications. HIV testing and counseling will be provided as well.
Does HF plan to expand anymore?
We do not—unless—we can find some strong financial supporters. We have respect and trust around the world and many invitations to partner with others. Our short-term strategy is to grow our work in India. India has been a place where we really do well. We have a strong team and it flows well.
How does HF get the word out?
Much of our work is done via social media. Actually, our strongest following is eighteen to twenty-four year olds in Pakistan then India, with Namibia in third place and the USA in fourth. They are newly diagnosed people and they reach out to us for support. I believe in this work and we have the opportunity soon to go to the next level.
What exactly was it that stirred you to create this Foundation?
It was a result of that speaking engagement in 2004. The first night of the five-day camp, I shared my story. The reaction was one of shock when I told them I had just tested positive for HIV. However, when I asked anyone who was impacted by my story to please stand, everyone stood except a handful of people. This was rare, particularly for shy Indian youth and because they had been taught that HIV was sinful. I was advised by the leaders of the camp not to share my status, as the youth would not accept me. That didn’t happen.
What kind of impression did that night have on you?
I saw the world differently. I saw the needs and the effects HIV and AIDS were having on my friends, particularly in India. It motivated me to do something. At the time, I was working full time at an advertising agency, but once I returned to the USA, I formed a board of directors—pulled some friends together—and I applied for the 501(c) 3 status, which I was approved for within thirty days. Everyone said I would be denied since I didn’t use an attorney for the paperwork. I proved all the naysayers wrong. They just motivated me more, since most of my life I was told that I would not amount to anything.
How do you deal with troubled times?
I face fear. I walk through it. I run to my problems. I want them resolved and healed as soon as possible because this creates a place of peace in my soul. It’s One Big Circle.
Never having anyone to rely on, I could always depend on prayer. All I had was faith. It saw me through many times when I felt alone or confused. I have a strong belief in God. I know the God I was taught is not the God that I believe in. The God I believe in loves everyone and no one is omitted. We…all…matter.
Has the church been beneficial to you?
The church I was attending during my diagnosis [Sanctuary Covenant Church in North Minneapolis] was a huge support for me. It had a lot to do with the loving pastor, Efrem Smith, who is no longer the pastor. He called me to the front of the church after I was diagnosed and had people pray for me. He commanded the congregation to stand by me in love. This was powerful and it helped me to start leading religious sessions.
One devastating challenge you experienced was the period you were broke, jobless, in debt, and resorted to escorting. How did that influence your life?
I hated being an escort. I felt an immediate satisfaction then would feel so cheap once I left each situation. I ultimately tried to end my life because I felt so unworthy. Religious guilt was also looming in my mind, which came from the lies I was told by the very strict religious community of my youth.
Do you have any certain practices that get you through life challenges?
Sometimes I will look at myself in the mirror and say, “You are so sexy and people love you! I have purpose and a calling. Now get off your ass and start working it!” My life is quite simple. I have chosen to live happy—and that my day, my week, my month, and my life is about leaving a legacy.
Where does that attitude come from?
From my Grandma Hughes, who taught me things that allowed me to be equipped in life—the power of words, the power of hard work, and the power of being kind to everyone.
Have you lost friends to this disease?
Yes, particularly as I went public with my story. One story that I always remember is about a woman that I met in 2007 while doing some work in Nagpur. After speaking at a local event, a lady asked if I would come meet a woman that lived next to her. This woman lived in a slum. She was lying on her bed dying from AIDS. Her body was as frail as a stick. She had been infected with HIV from her husband, who had already died. She was not being treated, as medications are not a right but a privilege in parts of India.
Most of her family had abandoned her and she was alone. I sat next to her and touched her. She spoke Hindi, I spoke English, but the universal language of love has no barriers. I stayed with her for several hours and she cried knowing that I too was living with HIV. Later that week she died.
This woman is the face that motivates me to do what I do. The pandemic is very personal to me and I am mad as hell at the disparity within the HIV and AIDS community.
How old were you when you first got tested?
I was twenty-six years-old and fresh out of college. I would routinely go to the Red Door Clinic, a free HIV testing center in Minneapolis and receive an anonymous test. At that time I had to wait nearly a week for the results. The waiting period was brutal and created so much anxiety.
Have you had any opportunistic infections?
Actually I never had any symptoms or infections from HIV and I credit early testing and treatment for that—and a lot of self care, too.
In many photographs, Jerry, you sport a cap. Is there a reason?
I love hats! It’s just my style. However…in 2006 I did a TV interview in Windhoek, Namibia, wearing one of them. Before I went on, I questioned whether wearing one might be disrespectful or unprofessional. Then I thought, “Dammit, wear it!” After that aired, many youths contacted me to find out where I bought it. They also wanted me to sign their hat. Most of my audience is young people and they usually don’t like to hear or talk about AIDS. But I found that if I deliver my message with a hat, they listen.
Who has inspired you in the epidemic?
All of the children who are born with HIV through no choice of their own and who are forced to live life, in most cases, without parents. They are my heroes—and they are my driving force.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.