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Christina Villacorte, LA Daily News: Mom finding hope despite her HIV

Mom finding hope despite her HIV
by Christina Villacorte, Staff Writer, October 15, 2011

photo: Danielle Mendez contracted HIV from a boyfriend who did not disclose that he had the virus. She is surviving with the help of AIDS Project L.A., which raises funds through AIDS Walk Los Angeles. She was photographed Oct. 14, 2011. (John McCoy/Daily News Staff Photographer)

HIV has cost Danielle Mendez her health, her job, her house and custody of her children.

But not her spirit.

“It’s not the end of the world,” the 43-year-old Glendale woman said recently, between fits of coughing from a persistent cold. “Life goes on.

“Tomorrow isn’t promised anyway.”

Mendez was infected by a boyfriend who failed to disclose he had the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. She has fought despair with the knowledge that there is help available for people like her.

In the past year or so, through assistance from government and nonprofit groups, she has managed to get back into housing and regain custody of one of her children. She has even found a new love.

On Sunday, some 30,000 supporters of groups that help people with HIV/AIDS will take to the streets of West Hollywood to generate awareness about the disease and raise money to help those suffering from it.

The annual AIDS Walk is organized by AIDS Project Los Angeles, the largest provider of HIV/AIDS support and medical services in Los Angeles County.

Craig Thompson, the nonprofit organization’s executive director, said the county has about 65,000 people living with HIV or AIDS, and 3,000 more are infected each year. Women account for 15 percent of those living with HIV or AIDS in Los Angeles County.

“Our mission has always been to serve everyone with HIV,” he said.

“Regardless of your educational background, your economic circumstances, we try to make sure that we can provide you with as good a health outcome as possible, regardless of your income level and whether you have health insurance or not,” Thompson added.

Mendez’s life spiraled out of control after she got sick.

Although her HIV has not developed into AIDS, she wasn’t healthy enough to continue working. She lost her job as a state labor compliance officer in 2006.

Unable to pay rent, she and her children were evicted from their home.

Mendez did not want her children to be homeless, but was torn about placing them in foster care.

She herself had been in the system from age 4-18, in Spokane, Wash., and suffered “severe physical abuse” at the hands of those who were supposed to care for her.

Ultimately, Mendez made the heart-wrenching decision to give up the children while she sought shelter on Skid Row and tried to find a job.

She holds degrees in electrical engineering and sociology, and once served in the Air Force, repairing air traffic control radar, but work was elusive for a seriously ill person.

AIDS Project Los Angeles eventually came to her aid, helping her get treatment and food, and apply for government benefits.

It also found her a one-bedroom apartment in Glendale through the Section 8 housing program, so that the family can be reunited.

Mendez has now regained custody of Hunter, 11, and hopes to have Mariah, 14, move in next year.

Hunter is devoted to his mother, who told him only a few weeks ago about her condition.

“I help her,” he said. “If she asks me to do something, I’ll do it. If she needs something I get it.”

Mendez said people with HIV need not feel isolated.

“Reach out, because organizations are there,” she said. “You don’t have to live alone in shame and in fear.”

AIDS Project Los Angeles’ executive director urged those at high risk of infection to get tested once or twice a year, to increase their chances of survival and to avoid spreading the disease.

“The challenges are that people don’t test regularly and instead show up in emergency rooms not just with HIV but with full-blown AIDS,” he said. “By then, it’s oftentimes too late to really provide them with the maximum benefit from the medications.”

“We may be able to help them but we’re not able to do what we could have done if they had been tested five years before,” he added.

Thompson said if a patient receives care early and takes medication properly, “We can start to talk about a chronic manageable disease for at least 20-plus years.”

Mendez said she shares her story through AIDS Project Los Angeles, and by volunteering as a counselor at Los Angeles Christian Health Center on Skid Row, to reassure fellow sufferers of the disease that it does not have to be a death sentence.

She has found a new love, has been reunited with her son, and plans to visit the beach with her daughter this weekend.

“I really appreciate life now, and I’m trying to teach my kids to enjoy life, too.”

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