POZ Exclusives : Kim Hunter: Survive, Thrive—and Teach - by Lauren Tuck

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March 4, 2010

Kim Hunter: Survive, Thrive—and Teach

by Lauren Tuck

After giving birth to a daughter in 1988, Kim Hunter learned she had HIV. The next year she began an eight-year prison sentence. As Hunter neared her 1996 release date, a caseworker from the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, a service organization in New Jersey, helped her plan for life after prison. Grateful for this aid and encouragement, Hunter decided to use her own personal experiences to help others in similar situations. She began speaking about her life and HIV, and eventually became Hyacinth’s manager of correctional services and a licensed substance abuse counselor. Hunter tells POZ about her journey from drug abuse and prison to her life as an inspiring professional.

How did you get your HIV diagnosis?

I had been using heroin intravenously since the age of 13. I was definitely addicted. I was in and out of a detox unit at Trinitas Hospital in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In 1988, I delivered my daughter there and was told that I had HIV. The hospital had records of an HIV test that I had taken two years before, on another inpatient stay—I had left the detox unit before getting those results in 1986. So I [hadn’t accepted my diagnosis] until I went to prison. When my daughter was 18 months old, she tested negative.

What was it like being HIV positive in jail?

Very isolating. Inmates in New Jersey state prisons who were HIV positive or showed complications of the virus had previously been segregated. During the time I was there they desegregated HIV-positive people, but you were still stigmatized and ostracized if people knew you had the virus. It took some time for me to come out and be comfortable. I began to talk about it with a select few. Most of the older woman were mature and had similar experiences, so I started to talk [more] openly. I got involved with the prisoner representatives committee, addressing [problems such as] medical issues. I also started a walking support group—we said we were joining to encourage each other to walk, but really used the time to talk about living with HIV. At that time there were no support services for people that were diagnosed inside the prison or had come in with a diagnosis. The walking support group got bigger and bigger, though other inmates didn’t know we were talking about HIV. At that time I saw a lot of women who were ill and had succumbed to complications of HIV and AIDS. That was pretty scary.

How is your health?

I am doing well, my CD4 count and viral load are stable. I’m taking HIV medication. I have never had any complications directly linked to HIV—I am asymptomatic

What led to your involvement in the HIV community?

I went to support groups, events in the community, seminars, workshops. I had connections with Hyacinth AIDS Foundation. [Having been] mentored by one of the staff, I felt passionate about the work of helping others and about educating myself so I could appropriately address my own diagnosis. In the late 90s I started as a public speaker with the Hyacinth Foundation. [I spoke] primarily at school presentations, support groups and community based organizations. Now, as a correctional services manager, I do reentry services—discharge planning for inmates [coming out of] state correctional facilities, county facilities and community halfway houses.

What does the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation do?

Hyacinth provides a variety of community support services to individuals with HIV. We have six offices throughout New Jersey. I work in the Newark, New Jersey regional office. My office provides treatment advocacy, legal advocacy services, prevention services, housing services. We also have a wellness community based on the model from the Wellness Community for cancer in California. Our wellness community focuses on HIV wellness. [We deal with] loss of hope, unwanted aloneness—[helping people] live with the virus in a positive way.

The correctional services project is unique, because we have a hotline connected to all the state prisons in New Jersey so inmates can access our service. Through the hotline they can receive health education, information and referrals to outside agencies. We have that hotline connected to the community as well. We go into the Edna Mahon State Correctional Facility for Women—the only state prison in New Jersey for women—and we’ve had a long, positive relationship with the administrators at that facility. I work primarily with women, but we also go into East Jersey State Prison, which is a male facility, [as well as] a majority of the halfway houses here in New Jersey.

How does this work help you in your own life with HIV?

Giving back—offering others the same type of help and support that I received when I was diagnosed—helps me feel I’m being responsible to my community. Connecting with the women coming out of prison helps me, because I was incarcerated myself.

Working in an atmosphere at Hyacinth where we as staff share common goals and interests has been rewarding. I use my own past as a reference in terms of the help that I received from Hyacinth when I was paroling from prison. My [correctional counselor] was a great source of support and later on [she] became my mentor and my coach. She supported me in finding employment, coached me and provided me with an outlet to talk about my experiences with incarceration and reentry.

Mentoring gives me satisfaction, a feeling of self worth. I am mentoring someone right now—she is getting ready to come onto the staff as a consumer advocate. She is someone I worked with in the past, when she was being released from state prison. For my own health it’s important for me to give back in this personal way.

Search: Woman of the Month, Kim Hunter, Prison, Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, detox

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