“It feel like somebody did give me one hard punch inna mi gut,” that’s how Charlene Chambers said she remembered feeling on the day she was told she was HIV positive. Charlene, who has been living with HIV for over 13 years and receives treatment at Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL), is one of the success stories which shows that one’s positive HIV status doesn’t have to define them. It had always been her dream to be an entrepreneur and in 2018, JASL partnered with the European Union (EU) to help Charlene achieve her lifelong dream of opening and owning her own shop. However, the road to get there would be one filled with hardships and disappointments.
Charlene a mother of three, grew up in rural Jamaica. She recounts her mom leaving her and her four siblings with their father when she was nine years old. After trying his best, her father was unable to provide basic amenities for them and when she was 11 years old, she was placed in a girls’ home. It was from this point she would start to ‘hustle’, selling sweets and snacks while envisioning herself owning her own business. With only primary school education, what she envisioned for her life seemed bleak and far-fetched.
After years of unemployment, Charlene landed a job at 25 years old. She started working as a housekeeper for a hotel and with the money she was earning from her job and the support from her children’s father, she could “mek ends meet and save a likkle.”
However, in 2007 things took a drastic turn. After missing work for a few days, she expressed to her boss that she was not feeling well and explained the symptoms she was having, which included feeling fatigued, constant coughing and a loss of appetite. Her boss then recommended that she see the company’s doctor. In assessing her symptoms, the doctor conducted an HIV test, to which she was reactive. “Mi feel like the earth did disappear from underneath me foot… It feel like somebody did give me one hard punch inna mi gut…all mi could a do a bawl” Things spiraled downward when she received a call from her boss two days later to inform her she was fired.
Charlene felt like her life was a ‘never-ending horror movie’ with “one bad thing just started happening afta a next bad thing.” She explains that her former coworkers started telling people within her community that she was HIV positive. “I memba one day me did a walk on the road and one girl weh me and har use to work, a point pon mi and show two other girls… mi did affi call the office and tell dem to tell her to leave me alone because me nuh fraid fi guh prison.”
If Charlene wasn’t already dealing with enough, she and her boyfriend at the time, who was also the father of her children, parted ways. Charlene said while she had no concrete evidence, she was heartbroken because she knew she contracted the virus from him as he was her only intimate partner. Charlene was left to fend for herself and three children, having no job, no partner and having been abandoned by friends. She packed the few items she had for herself and her children and fled the community to start a new life in St Ann.
After moving to St Ann, she started treatment at JASL. Where she expressed, she met a new support system. Charlene expressed that while she was happy that she was now on treatment, her financial situation was still extremely dire. She made several calls to her former employer asking for her ‘final payment’ and was often told “the boss inna meeting”, “call back tomorrow”, “him seh he is doing the calculations.” It was not until she became extremely frustrated one day and went to the hotel in person that she was paid. “Mi know a nuh all a it dem did give me, but me just tek it because me did tired of fighting.”
Now that Charlene had moved, she was trying to find a job. After being interviewed, she was selected. However, she was required to provide her former employer’s contact for a reference. After waiting over a week, she called to enquire about commencing the job but was told that they had gotten someone else.
Charlene expressed that it was not until 2018 that she finally felt like God was really shining His light on her. She was contacted by JASL where she was told that she had been selected to receive a grant from the European Union for under project “Reducing Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence against Women in the context of HIV and AIDS.” Charlene used the grant to open a small shop where she was able to sell food and household items. Her business is now thriving and well supported by her community. Her shop is a haven for her and her three children who often assist in the shop after school and on weekends.
Now 47 years old, Charlene has been living with HIV for over 13 years and is grateful that the dream she had as a little girl growing up in rural Jamaica, of owning her business is now coming true. The profit she earns is invested in the business to keep the shop fully stocked. She can provide lunch money daily to her children, and now they never miss a day from school.
Charlene says she has fully accepted her reality and is conquering her hurdles each day. “I don’t mek a day pass and mi nuh tek mi medication, when people ask me how mi doing I seh happy, healthy and hearty; honestly mi feel really good and just a look forward to getting a few grandkids.”