by Kristina Rolfes, Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute Newsletter, Winter 2012
“Be forward focused, not past possessed,” Rev. Debra Hickman can be heard telling women at Sisters Together and Reaching, Inc. (STAR), a Baltimore non-profit she co-founded in 1991 to help address the needs of HIV-infected and at-risk African American women. “Today is a new day. The past is in the past.”
It is a message of hope, something many of these women have long since abandoned. But the women believe in Rev. Hickman—known to many as “Rev. Debbie”—because she reached out to them when no one else would.
“They’re in pain, and they need someone to listen,” says Rev. Hickman. “We make them understand that they can overcome their pain. We offer love, a listening ear, and an open heart.”
Through her work at STAR, Rev. Hickman has seen women who were once homeless, drug-addicted, and without hope now living meaningful, productive lives. Because of STAR, they have jobs, families, and positive attitudes. They take care of themselves and make healthy decisions. The change is not sudden, but it is profound, and sometimes unbelievable, says Rev. Hickman.
Others are not as fortunate—Rev. Hickman has seen far too many women succumb to AIDS over the years.
The first time Rev. Hickman met a mother with AIDS, she was working as a research nurse at the University ofMaryland, helping to identify and care for babies born to HIV-positive women.
“I watched the tears roll down her face, wanting so much to care for another human being—her baby—but knowing she couldn’t because she had AIDS.”
Rev. Hickman couldn’t offer the mother promises of getting better, so instead she offered her compassion. In turn, the woman introduced Rev. Hickman to her physician—Dr. Dorothy Brewster Lee—whose work focused on HIV-positive women. And with that introduction, her life’s work of helping women with HIV began.
Under Dr. Lee’s tutelage, Rev. Hickman began writing grants to help address HIV-related issues faced by African American women in low income, urban areas. Rev. Hickman joined with Dr. Lee to organize a Saturday spiritual support group. She went to churches and trained women to be “buddies” for other HIV-positive women, offering to shuttle them to appointments, clean their houses, and help with anything else they needed. Before long, the number of women they had helped reached 500, and the organization known as STAR was born.
Since STAR’s inception, Rev. Hickman’s work has been locally and nationally recognized. She was appointed to serve as a commissioner for the Baltimore City HIV Commission, and the White House appointed her as an advisor to the CDC and the Health Resources Services Administration Advisory Committee on HIV and STD prevention.
STAR has helped over 40,000 women, men and youth in the past twenty years through direct care and prevention services utilizing mobile unit and in-house services. An estimated 1,200 women and men are serviced in-house and another 700 or more are reached through community outreach venues.
For Rev. Hickman, who has a Master’s of Divinity and became ordained in 2004, spirituality is the key to STAR’s success. She begins every morning at STAR with a circle of prayer, and she encourages prayer whenever it is needed. “Someone might say, ‘I need you to pray for me now’ and we stop everything and pray.”
But spirituality is more than just prayer, explains Rev. Hickman. It’s about people sharing their true selves with each other and forming a connection.
The idea that spirituality can be used to help HIV sparked an NIH-sponsored joint research project between STAR and the UHI known as You Gotta Have Faith! The project, which began over a year ago, now has a baseline of data that researchers and faith leaders will use to recommend strategies for pastors to engage with youth and encourage them to make healthy decisions about sex. Explains Rev. Hickman, “The church has an ongoing audience seeking guidance on how to live, so what better way to communicate this message?”
You Gotta Have Faith!, Rev. Hickman hopes, will go a long way toward protecting at-risk youth, so that the cycle of HIV—and women without hope—can be prevented.