As a teenager, I witnessed first-hand the harmful effects and consequences of substance use. Members of my family struggled with addiction which ultimately resulted in them contracting HIV and dying from AIDS. As a result of this, I had a very turbulent and unstable childhood. I was homeless, angry, confused, and misguided which eventually led me into contact with the criminal justice system.
Coming to The Fortune Society has helped me channel my experiences into a means to helping others. Now, as a Transitional Specialist working directly on Rikers Island, I assist other justice-involved individuals affected by drugs, HIV, and AIDS in dealing with those same struggles that I had experienced in my own life.
I first came to Fortune about sixteen years ago as part of its DAMAS program, which was a gender-specific transitional program that taught formerly incarcerated women how to carry themselves with dignity in society. Here, I met women facing all sorts of struggles including prostitution, homelessness, and single-parenthood. As part of the program, we reflected as a group on the causes of our destructive behaviors and on the relationships with our families. This program not only helped to resolve some of our issues, but it also allowed us to build bonds between the group members.
Fortune became home for me. It still remains home to me. Many of the Fortune staff members became a surrogate family for me. No matter what I was going through, I could always count on Fortune’s staff for comfort and judgment-free guidance. Fortune finally got me to open up and truly find myself.
After completion of the DAMAS program, I became a Peer Educator and HIV Counselor and continued to grow both personally and professionally. I was the only person in my family to graduate from college, obtaining my Bachelor’s Degree in Public Health. I am currently completing my Masters in Public Health and hope to go into clinical psychology and continue to work with the HIV/AIDS population.
As a Transitional Specialist, my work involves travelling to Rikers Island multiple times a week to meet with people living with HIV and AIDS to provide them with transitional services. I perform medical assessments and ensure that these individuals are linked to medical care. At any given time, my caseload consists of about 30 people.
The intake process itself involves finding out when individuals were last connected to medical care, what their housing and mental health situations are, and what medications they take. Once I gather this information, I connect them to the services they will need upon release.
One of the biggest challenges my participants face during this time is accepting and dealing with an HIV diagnosis while maintaining a positive attitude towards reentry. Using motivational interviewing, I show these participants that no matter how imperfect their choices and lives have been, they are still strong survivors.
I usually tell them, “You’re here now. What are you going to do now to change it? You’ve been through everything you’ve been through but you have a chance to start over today. How can I help you?”
Thus, my criminal justice background and knowledge of the struggles that face the HIV and AIDS population allows me to empathize with participants on a deeper level. In turn, because we can identify with each other, participants see my work in a different light and are more inclined to open up to me.
In the end, one of the most fulfilling parts of my job comes from seeing that participants have successfully reentered society and have obtained the medical care they need. When I see that a participant remains connected to medical care, overcomes substance use, and now has a roof over their head, this clearly shows me that I did my job and made a positive impact on a person’s life.
People who leave the criminal justice system face enough discrimination upon reentry, but those living with HIV and AIDS face an even greater stigma. Just as it did for me, Fortune acts as a source of comfort and stability for this population. Our arms are open to them no matter their justice-involvement or how many chances they need. From medical assistance to social support, we stay true to our mission by always listening and responding to our participants’ needs and being present for them.
*Written by Crystal Lopez, Transitional Specialist, Drop-In Center, The Fortune Society