Cheryl Edwards (right), executive director/founder and CEO of A Sister’s Gift, with M. Hollins, peer leader and care team coordinator. Photo by Care Team Associate R. Glapion.
By Julia Kayser*
November 7, 2013—One day, Cheryl Edwards and her parents got a phone call that would change their lives forever. “Ronnie is very sick, and he’s not telling you guys,” a stranger’s voice said. “You might want to see what you can do to get up here.”
Ronnie was her bright, talented brother—a financial expert and aspiring actor—who lived in New York. Although the rest of the Texas family didn’t see him often, they loved him dearly. Cheryl and Ronnie’s parents dropped everything and flew to New York when they heard of his illness. They found him in a nursing home. “The doctors had placed him there to die,” Edwards says. His crushing diagnosis was AIDS.
The family rallied around Ronnie, bringing him home to Dallas and making sure he got the best medical care available. On a new drug cocktail, he did well for a year and a half before he began to decline. “He and I spent a lot of time together,” Edwards says. “He said to me, one day: Cheryl, you’ve got to do something. This is a horrible disease.”
Three months later, Ronnie passed away. His exhortation rang in Edwards’ ears as the family mourned their loss. A few years later, when Edwards was laid off from her comfortable corporate job, she decided it was time to answer Ronnie’s final request. Prayer was her compass. She felt called to “begin a ministry of helping women who are hurting from living with HIV,” she says.
In 2004, her nascent organization became a 501(c)3. She called it A Sister’s Gift. At first, it was a one-woman show: clients would call her cell phone, and she would get in her car and drive to them. But once A Sister’s Gift was listed in the Texas Handbook for HIV, the phone rang nonstop. Today, the organization has an office that is open four days a week, and a team of more than 60 volunteers.
Its growth is a testament to how valuable its services are. A Sister’s Gift provides women with transportation vouchers, food vouchers, support groups, social services, counseling, free classes, and even peer leadership training. Its primary goals are “to bring wellness, to bring what we call medical compliance, and to ensure that women are getting medical services first,” Edwards says. “We don’t want to go to any more funerals.”
A Sister’s Gift sees eight to twelve clients each week in its office in downtown Dallas, picks up an average of three new clients per week, and answers calls constantly. Every client who walks through the door is unique, but Edwards says that the common denominator is that they are in crisis. Most clients are women of color, living under the poverty line as single parents. Many have faced domestic violence, inscrutable medical regimens, and negative side effects from their HIV medication. Targeting these women, who often lack other support systems, is one way that A Sister’s Gift practices good stewardship with the resources they have.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has helped to fund A Sister’s Gift for two years through its domestic HIV/AIDS grant program, and looks forward to a continued partnership. Your gift to UMCOR Global Health, Advance #3021770, supports this and other UMCOR health programs in the United States and around the world.
UMCOR also works in partnership with the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund (UMGAF) to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, encourage prevention, and help those living with the virus to live positively. In 2014, UMGAF will concentrate its efforts on supporting projects and ministries around the globe that focus on the critical task of preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV and AIDS.
For information about UMGAF resources to help your congregation develop an HIV/AIDS ministry click here. And please support UMGAF with your gift to Advance #982345, and mark both the start of Advent and World AIDS Day, December 1.
*Julia Kayser is a writer and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.