Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer
I like strong women…like me! We change the world for the better. Think St. Joan of Arc, Mother Teresa, Gloria Steinem, and Rosa Parks. Our strength is usually fostered by pain and Ms. Kim Hunter is no exception.
Raised in New Jersey, by the age of thirteen she was injecting heroin. When Kim turned eighteen she was hooked and was forced onto the streets. For the next ten years, she was in and out of the Essex County jail twenty-six times. Then in 1989, she was charged with first-degree robbery with unlawful weapons possession and spent the next eight years at a correctional facility. During this time she was diagnosed with HIV.
Eventually she detoxed, received state certification in alcohol and drug counseling and her bachelor’s in human and social services. Kim is currently manager of the Office for Women’s Health at New Jersey’s Hyacinth AIDS Foundation (HAF), where several years earlier she had been a client. She’s been with the organization for nearly ten years.
I meet this vibrant, robust gal at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. We dine at The View, the revolving restaurant atop the hotel, before catching the evening curtain of Broadway’s Porgy and Bess.
Ruby Comer: Kudos to your courage. What a ride you’ve had thus far, sister! Your life’s been firecracker-charged, running the gamut of emotions. I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do with the rest of your time! [She giggles.] Will you explain specifically what you do at HAF?
Kim Hunter: My work is centered on working with both male and female offenders reentering Essex County from state and county correctional facilities. I provide supportive services that include individual substance abuse counseling and group counseling, and I facilitate a weekly co-ed substance abuse group. Additionally, I assist those transitioning from jails/prisons with work clothes, nutritional items, transportation, and referrals.
You also do part time work, too, right?
Yes. I work as a private contractor through an agency named Creative Consultants Inc. I work with youth and their families in-home to provide behavioral modification counseling, anger management, skills building, and family cohesion. [She cuts off a thick piece of her seafood-steak combo and places it in her mouth. I can tell by her elation that she’s thoroughly satisfied with her choice of entrée.] My part-time work leaves me little down time, Ruby, but it can be a healthy change of pace after working with the adult population daily.
You indeed have your plate full of activity. Have you lost anyone close to AIDS?
I have lost too many friends, family, colleagues, and clients over the past three decades, Ruby.
What’s your take on the epidemic today?
Well, I’ve certainly been impacted on a personal level as an African-American female living with HIV. Moreover I am impacted by the conditions and implications centered on the rates at which women are still becoming infected. As I continue my work in the field of supportive services and advocacy, I feel that after thirty years there still is not enough emphasis on women and reducing the spread of the disease.
Isn’t it shocking?! I want to focus on your work with prison reentry.
As a formerly incarcerated woman and service provider, I know firsthand the challenges and barriers facing individuals transitioning from prison. While my transition took place at a pre-release halfway house, I was able to integrate back into society successfully by accessing the supports that I established prior to being paroled. [She briefly looks out at the sun-sparkled Hudson River.] As I look at my own needs, I had access to HIV care, stable housing and supports. I even had a job. [She pauses.] Families really need to be educated on reentry processes. Their personal expectations should also be explored upon the offender’s release.
Looking back, sum up your reentry.
It took me at least three years to realize that I could not make up for lost time. To address these challenges I needed therapy then—and at times now! [She smiles.] While my agency and many CBOs provide prison reentry services, there is a need to focus more on development of gender responsive initiatives that can assist women with self actualization as it relates to healthcare, housing, health education, parenting, relationships, and employment. While my past experience with prison reentry was a positive transition, I now realize that I was not emotionally prepared.
Hmm, I see. How is the current treatment of HIV in the prison system?
It’s improved over the past fifteen years. When I was incarcerated back in the early nineties, there were few efforts and a lack of knowledge from healthcare professionals to address the growing number of offenders entering the penal system with HIV/AIDS. Many of the women were fearful of disclosure and therefore did not seek care while at the prison. Some would literally rather die than receive treatment from what was known as an incompetent system of care.
When I left prison in 1996 there was access to a few new drugs, but the stigma and ignorance prevailed through the years. Today there are more supportive services for both the female and male prison populations. As the prison systems have privatized over the years their HIV care and treatment has expanded to address the many offenders that require treatment.
That’s good to hear. How’s your health today? Are you on a regimen?
I am doing well, Ruby. Thanks. I take my meds as prescribed and encourage my clients to do the same. Most days it’s not about me, it’s about them. My CD4 count is 801 and VL <70. I have been on the same regimen for the past four years: Reyatez, Truvada and Norvir. I am not one to complain when it comes to HIV . . . I have other legitimate complaints! [She laughs.] Since my diagnosis in 1988, I have yet to experience any health complications that were directly related to my diagnosis. Asymptomatic, that’s me!
Great news, sister! Will you address the high rate of HIV infection in the African-American community?
There needs to be a revitalization in the community to address the issues centered on HIV transmission. There has been a lot of advocacy centered on gay men, which has reduced their rates of transmission. There needs to be as much work and advocacy centered on minority women and women of color. Our public/private school systems should mandate extensive sex education….
Hear, hear, Kim!
As our advocacy continues there needs to be others joining the fight to end HIV/ AIDS by 2015. For those who still conceptualize the urgency to end this epidemic, there should be a passing of the baton to the new generation at risk.
Let me inquire—are you romantically linked?
I’ve been in a relationship with the same woman for the last twelve years. Donna’s HIV-negative and very supportive. She’s a licensed clinical social worker and licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor. We work with the same populations. I also have three children: My son is thirty-two, and I have two daughters, thirty and twenty-three. The twenty-three year old was born with HIV antibodies and seroconverted when she was eighteen months.
Oh, you certainly are a strong role model for us all. And we need to get to the theater! But one more question. Who do you look up to?
I look up to all of the people who believed in me when I wanted and needed to turn my life around; all those people who supported me and mentored me. [We begin to gather our belongings. Kim stops and looks at me directly.] I especially look up to my mother, Ruby, who was a single, widowed mom doing the best she could to raise four young children when my dad passed tragically in a truck accident at the age of twenty-five.
[She looks off for a moment in stern concentration.] I also look up to my grandmother, who is 104 years old. She has longevity and words of wisdom, but sometimes it’s just her presence here on earth after all those years, which, at times, speaks to me silently.
For more information about Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, log on to www.hyacinth.org.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at MsRubyComer@aol.com.