Our Stories

We exist to serve our clients and share their stories. Each of the individuals we meet through HIV Community link has a compelling story that deserves to be told, and we’d like to share a few. Our clients and volunteers are the people who make HIV Community Link possible and better every day.

Stella’s Story  —  Cheryl’s Story   —    Ann’s Story  —   Gerald’s Story  —   Leah’s Story  —   Marie’s Story

I Am Stella

A story of resilience in the face of domestic abuse and HIV stigma

Stella is an African woman who immigrated to Canada early this year as an asylum seeker. The 48-year-old woman landed in Calgary on March 23, 2017, coming from Uganda. Soon after, Stella found a community of support through HIV Community Link. Here, she got involved with Drumbeat, our program supporting people from African Communities, and with the HIV Support Services team.

Stella was born and raised in Uganda, and in her early years lived a relatively average life. She got married young and happily raised two daughters. On November 29, 2000, her life changed significantly. She recounts vivid memories of how she learned of her HIV diagnosis on that day: “I went to the hospital not suspecting I’d leave with an HIV diagnosis. I had had a cough for 6 months. They called me the next day saying the doctor had to see me. There was a 15-minute walk from my home to the hospital, but it took me an hour to get there. He said: ‘I have bad news.’ That was all I heard from what the doctor told me that day.” well-spoken Stella says other family members with similar symptoms had died before her diagnosis. They were also married and their partners didn’t want to reveal the cause, but Stella believes they died of AIDS-related illnesses.

After finding out she was HIV positive, she went home and refused to accept it. “I was in denial; I didn’t know anything about HIV and I had all these questions about how my husband and children would take it,” says Stella. After four months, she realized she needed to deal with it. The hardest thing for her was telling her husband. “He was furious; he started to call me names and turned against me. He blamed my family and blamed me,” she remembers. Stella’s husband left her and moved to the family farm. “I had to keep quiet because of the stigma and because my husband had warned me not to tell anybody. I still have this question: who is responsible? Up to today, I haven’t had a conversation about HIV with my husband,” Stella says.

And there she was. Alone. With no money for medication or help to look after her children, her health rapidly got worse. Seeing her desperation, her sister offered to help, and supported Stella to access treatment for her HIV.

With access to medical treatment, Stella regained her strength and went back to her job in hospitality. After some time of feeling strong and healthy she stopped taking the treatment, thinking she was strong enough and didn’t need the medication anymore. But she soon found herself in the hospital again, this time diagnosed with cancer. Once again, her family came together to support her. Her brother-in-law, an influential government leader in Uganda, convinced her husband to come back home and avoid family shame. Stella remembers that moment with mixed feelings. “I was week, sad; I was planning my funeral really. I went through radiation and all. But the family supported me; cancer was better news than HIV for most of the people around me. There was a lot of stigma surrounding HIV.” Asked if she remembers how stigma feels like, Stella talks about the incredible pain she felt when her husband abandoned her sick, with an HIV diagnosis she didn’t know how to cope with. “I’m back from that pain, I’m on treatment now, I am back to my normal weight, I’m smiling; I’m Stella,” she adds.

As the years passed, Stella recognized the importance of her HIV treatment in maintaining her health, and she began to thrive. She became a support person for other people living with HIV in her community. “I decided to give back to my community, especially to the women. Maybe somebody out there is like me; has a husband who is completely in denial and they are fighting it all alone,” she explains, adding that helping others was the therapy that had helped her to keep going.  For the next 15 year, Stella offered support to women in her community; she helped in any way she could, from lending a compassionate ear to driving them to the hospital. There were many women who couldn’t afford treatment or didn’t know anything about HIV.

line-01Then, last November, Stella’s life turned upside down. She made the shocking discovery that her husband had another wife, whom he had hidden from her. Stella recounts how after confronting her husband about this second wife she endured months of physical abuse and threats. “My journey is a bit sad,” says Stella. “I left my home behind, after I found out my husband had another wife. Within a month, things changed dramatically. We fought. He chased me out of my house. I couldn’t see my children. He was trying to get rid of me because we were sharing some property.” Her husband started beating her constantly. One night, close to New Year’s, the abuse escalated and she decided she had to run. “I lost my front tooth that night. My sister came and took me to the hospital. He found me there too, and threatened me not to tell anybody about the beatings. My sister convinced me to leave, she was afraid I was going to die.”

My sister helped me escape. I ran through Kenya and came here,” the well-spoken woman continues.

Stella spoke of the support she received from the women’s organizations that she had worked with. They helped her to come to Canada, leaving behind her two daughters who are enrolled in university in Uganda. Once here, she built another network of support in which HIV Community Link plays an important role. “Since I came to HIV Community Link, my life has changed. I’ve gone through counselling, I have food, information, I come to trainings and I feel supported,” she explains. Stella says she wants to continue giving back and help others in her situation, so when the opportunity came about to be a Peer Mentor for the HIV Community Link Peer Support program, she decided to get involved. “Sharing my experience has helped me to keep going. Here in Canada, I feel accepted. I can reject the HIV stigma because I am stronger. I am Stella.”

Come to our Community Voices event on November 30 and listen to Stella’s story in person. Tickets available at commmunityvoices2017.eventbrite.ca

Cheryl’s Story

The first thing you realize when you talk to Cheryl is that she adores her kids. “I was born here in Calgary and raised here, been here all my life. I have three wonderful kids, but I am not allowed to see them. The court feels that, because I am a transgender woman, it would cause psychological damage to them,” Cheryl tells me with a soft and sad voice. She is tall and timid, and really happy she has a safe place to come to almost every day.

Cheryl has been a Shift client for almost three years. “I had a severe depression and I ended up being suicidal. After my third attempt, they put me in the hospital and I was there for four months. When I got out, I had nothing; my breastplates were gone, my belongings were gone, everything was gone; so I got out of the hospital and I was living on the street. To be precise, I was living in my van and I was working the stroll in Forest Lawn,” says Cheryl. It was then that somebody gave her a card for Shift.

The first time Cheryl came out as a transgender woman, living her life as a female was 15 years ago. She was taking hormones and getting ready for surgery, when she hooked up with a woman she met at a party. A couple of weeks later, the woman showed up at Cheryl’s door, informing her that she was pregnant. Recognizing she was about to become a parent, Cheryl realized that she had to choose between either pursue her dream as a woman or being part of her child’s life. “I wasn’t allowed both, so I picked my child,” says Cheryl. She had to put everything on hold. Years later, in consultation with her psychiatrist, she decided to continue her pursuit of her real identity and re-embarked on her journey of transition into life as a woman.

Twelve years had passed with her playing the role of being a man. And the transition hasn’t been easy. “Being a transgender woman, I don’t fit in with the, I guess you want to call them the ‘straight crowd’ and I don’t fit in with the gay, lesbian or bisexual crowd, so kind of just hover in the centre.”, which is why the safe and nonjudgemental support of the Shift program means so much to her.

When Cheryl got the Shift card, she needed a couple of weeks to get in touch with the agency. “The support counsellor here was very understanding and she didn’t condemn me or anything for what I was doing. I told her I had no money so I’m doing what I have to do to at least eat. Next thing I knew, there was a lady from the Canadian Mental Health Association that came in, and the Shift counsellor asked me if I would please talk to her. So I sat down and we talked, and all of a sudden I had a place to live. When I moved in, I owned nothing. The only thing I had was two short dresses. That was all I owned, and I talked with the Shift counsellor some more and next thing I know she called an agency; they show up and I got all of these clothes, and I just felt wonderful that I had someone there that actually cared,” adds Cheryl.

“I honestly don’t know. If it wasn’t for that lady from Shift walking up to me and giving me that card, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Honestly it’s been nothing but support and they help me with even the littlest things, like in wintertime when you don’t have a jacket. When I don’t have anything to eat, they give me food, and the nicest thing about all of it is they don’t condemn me. I tell them that sometimes money is so tight, I have to go back out and work, and they don’t condemn me for it, they just tell me “you have to be safe,” says the tall woman with the softest voice. She adds that it’s wonderful to have an organization that supports her.

Cheryl doesn’t hesitate when asked if she has a message for the other transgender people out there. “Don’t give up, don’t give up, as hard as it is, as lonely as it is, you can come to a place like Shift and you have someone that will stand beside you and will help you and me.”

Leah’s Story

Leah has been volunteering with HIV Community Link for over a year. She is 33 years old and she is a registered nurse. “I took a special interest in sexual health. I was pointed towards HIV Community Link and I thought I would enjoy it, and I have. I have worked in sexual transmitted infections in Sydney, Australia, and was a part of a research study on rapid testing. HIV has its share of stigma and I wanted to continue my work to break down the stigma. Having given a few HIV diagnoses myself, I felt really moved by doing this work,” says Leah describing her connection with the cause.

“I really enjoy working with the organization. I’ve made some good connections with the staff there, I feel recognized as a volunteer, and it’s definitely something I want to continue doing. I would strongly encourage people to volunteer with agencies that they feel are doing something good. It brings a lot of positivity in my life, I’ve met really wonderful people and it’s been a lovely experience. It’s nice to just give back when you know you can.”

Ann’s Story

Ann found out she was HIV positive in 2011. It took years to figure out what was wrong, because she wasn’t considered to be in a high risk group. A couple of months later, she came to HIV Community Link. “When I got here I was treated very well, there was not judgement, no stigma”, says Ann. Before living on the street, Ann had worked in an office for years. ”I was on the street from 2004 to 2008. I can understand now how it happens. It’s very easy. They say one paycheck away is what a lot of people are at right now from living on the street,” says Ann, who is happy she doesn’t have to be worried about her basic needs anymore. She adds that HIV Community Link helped her with her Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) and housing applications. But the most important part, she says, is “coming and meeting people, people that you didn’t have to be afraid to say you are HIV positive. I use the many services offered at HIV Community Link for people living with HIV including counselling, massage, acupuncture, food hampers, Friday lunches, laundry machines and attending conferences. This helps people to live with their condition and cope with it,” shares Ann, adding that it’s really important to educate health professionals so everybody gets tested, not just those who are considered to be at a greater risk. “HIV is everyone’s disease. Please help in the education, research, and prevention of HIV,” Ann concludes.

Gerald’s Story

Gerald has been actively volunteering with our organization for over three years, helping out in several capacities. He is always looking for ways to get involved and help our organization. Gerald frequently supports at our Volunteer Activity Nights, has been a great contribution to our annual AIDS Walk, casinos and our annual Splash of Red event.

He is a cherished friend in our office with staff and clients. “I just like to step in whenever and wherever I am needed. I just like to help out as it does also give me a better understanding and workable knowledge of helping other people that need support”, says Gerald. Thank you, Gerald!

Marie’s Story

Marie is enrolled in Business Administration. She has been working in the sex industry for three years. “I started doing sex work when I was 18. It’s completely my choice. It’s your body, you should be able to do what you want with it, and you should have the choice to be who you want to be,” shares Marie, adding that she found out about Shift when she first started working with an escort agency. She says it felt really good to receive non-judgmental support from Shift. “I get to discuss safety measures; I get to be up-to-date on different health things, on contraception and STIs. Shift really helps me think clearly, makes sure I make good choices and that I keep my wellbeing. It’s good to be able to talk to someone about the things I’m going through and have someone understand”. Marie wants to start her own escort agency and mentor other women who are starting sex work. She thinks that agencies like HIV Community Link and programs like Shift should be a “requirement” so that the community can support the safety and inclusion of sex workers. “I feel like they do such a big I want to say benefit, to people in the sex industry because the chance to really go over things and get a neutral point of view helps so much”.

Find Us In

Calgary: 110 – 1603 10 Ave SW, T3C 0J7 |
(403) 508-2500 or 1 (877) 440-2437 (toll free)
Medicine Hat: 641 4th Street SE Medicine Hat|
(403) 527-5882 or 1 (877) 440-2437 (toll free)
Brooks: PO Box 331, T1R 1B4  | (403) 376-6020

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