Kimberly Sonnie was 24 when she was diagnosed HIV positive. When doctors found the virus — all 10 billion particles, or copies, of it — they told Sonnie that she only had three years of life left.

She had been living in Pittsburgh without a home, a lifestyle she had endured on and off since she was 13 years old, before winding up in the county prison where they tested her for STDs.

When Sonnie heard the news, her first thought was, “I’m going to die.” After that, she was put on suicide watch.

It was another two years before Sonnie received the medication she needed to start getting better. In the meantime, she turned to alcohol and crack cocaine to cope. She felt sorry for herself and angry at the person who had put her in this situation.

But once she got on the appropriate medication, things started looking up. Sonnie came to San Antonio in 2000, four years after her diagnosis. She was still homeless, but this time she had the San Antonio Aids Foundation (SAAF) to look out for her.

Kimberly Sonnie.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Kimberly Sonnie. Photo by Scott Ball.

SAAF, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is the largest HIV/AIDS service organization in Bexar County. The foundation provides medical care and social services to locals living with HIV/AIDS and helps prevent the spread of the virus through testing, counseling, and education initiatives.

SAAF also provides nursing and hospice care, dental care, free hot meals for anyone who is HIV positive, and transitional housing for homeless individuals living with HIV/AIDS. It reaches thousands of individuals, without discrimination, every year with its services.

Sonnie was paired with a SAAF caseworker who guided her through a series of steps to get her back on her feet, whether it was helping her find housing, dental care, or her next meal. Sixteen years later, Sonnie is widely considered SAAF’s greatest success story.

“We’ve done a lot for her and she’s done a lot for us,” said Jose Cervantes, SAAF senior vice president of client services.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) attacking cells. Photo courtesy of the CDC.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) attacking cells. Photo courtesy of the CDC.

Despite Sonnie’s AIDS diagnosis in 2005, which also put her out of work, she is able to find the silver lining in each day. Her medical test scores are up and she said she feels good.

“I don’t feel scared anymore, and I know where my life is going,” Sonnie said. “Back in 1994, I didn’t think I would be a 20-plus (year) survivor because of my lifestyle. I did not think I would make it to today and I’m praying that I make it to next year for my 50th birthday because I’m having a big bash.”

These days, Sonnie spends her days crocheting, drawing, and listening to music. She has three children and five grandchildren who keep her company.

“I’ve been through a lot,” Sonnie said. “I’ve survived several rapes, I’ve been beaten with a gun, held hostage with a box cutter, choked out by my pimp. My story is strong.”

Sonnie is one of 850 active clients in case management at SAAF. CEO Cynthia Nelson said SAAF aims to be a “one stop shop” for San Antonians suffering from HIV/AIDS.

“When you’re at the beginning of an illness, (it’s important to) just have someone there for social support, guiding you along,” Nelson said. “The acronym of our organization, SAAF, is meant to show that this is a safe place for them that they can count on.”

SAAF will hold a fundraiser in honor of their 30th anniversary on Sunday, Aug. 7 at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa, located at 9800 Hyatt Resort Dr.

Tickets for the event, titled “First in Hope, First in Service,” can be purchased for $100 and all proceeds will benefit SAAF. The event will run from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and include a brunch buffet, silent and live auctions, and presentations from elected officials and community leaders.

The keynote speaker is Cleve Jones, a notable LGBTQIA activist since the 1970s and co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Notable human rights activist Cleve Jones will be the keynote speaker at SAAF’s 30th Anniversary Fundraiser. Photo courtesy of SAAF.

Jones will address his background and involvement in initiatives both in San Francisco and throughout the nation, as well as touch on the stigma that continues to surround HIV/AIDS.

Jase Clower is all too familiar with the stigma and general lack of understanding surrounding HIV/AIDS. After being diagnosed 11 years ago, he lost his job. Clower was told by a coworker that the reasoning behind his dismissal was that he could “infect” his students. Because he is open about his diagnosis, he has heard it all, including questions about why he doesn’t “look sick.”

HIV/AIDS is an invisible disease. Because HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, specifically the body’s T-cells, there are no outward signs, but if left untreated, it can turn into AIDS.

HIV can only be spread through bodily fluids and has no effective cure, although there are ways to control it, which is what SAAF helps promote and raise awareness about.

Despite HIV’s “invisible” status, the disease has still left an unmistakable imprint on Clower’s life. At 42, he found himself confined to a hospital bed for a week due to elevated ammonia levels in his blood. His doctor sat him down in the middle of his stay and revealed that Clower was HIV positive.

Jase Clower was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS 11 years ago.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Jase Clower was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS 11 years ago. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Most healthy individuals have about 500 to 1,200 thymus-derived lymphocytes, or T-cells, per cubic millimeter of blood, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Clower had 27.

It would be several months before Clower would fully come to terms with the diagnosis. He started researching the disease, told his family, and moved to San Antonio. Six years ago he walked into SAAF. His caseworker helped him get off the streets, find the home he lives in now, and “maintain a liveable and sustainable life,” he said.

San Antonio AIDS Foundation Case Manager Lindsay Ramos works with Jase Clower to help him get the support he needs. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
San Antonio AIDS Foundation Case Manager Lindsay Ramos works with Jase Clower to help him get the support he needs.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

“SAAF has been a great safety net for me,” Clower added.

In May, he received his Ph.D. and currently tutors college kids, but is on the lookout for more permanent online teaching positions.

Despite the initial diagnosis, which only gave him a few years to live, Clower is still standing strong. He attributes his good health to a positive attitude, one that was facilitated by a chance encounter with a chaplain in the hospital he was diagnosed in.

Shortly after Clower received the crippling news, the chaplain visited him in the hospital church and told him everything was going to be okay.

“You’ll have more problems with your diabetes than with HIV,” she told him. Turns out, she was right. 

“Her words have always been stuck in my head,” Clower said. “The positive attitude from her resonated with me. I think something inside of me said, ‘I want to prove everyone wrong and live more than two to three years.’ Here it is – 11 years later – and I’m still alive and doing pretty good. I have another 10 years in me, maybe 20 or 30.”

Top image: Kimberly Sonnie.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Katie Walsh studies journalism and English at the University of Texas at Austin and will graduate in May 2017.