In 1988, 27-year-old Wanda Savage discovered she was HIV positive and pregnant. Unable to find services or housing, she struggled financially until she succumbed to the disease in January 1993, leaving behind a young daughter.
Her mother Bernice Tucker, embattled by devastation and the need to help others, vowed to seek out better services for young women in crisis.
She volunteered for a layoff at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, where she had worked for 30 years, to open a clinic for women and teens suffering from HIV, domestic abuse, drug abuse and other forms of distress. Using her pension to fund the center and a rental property to house it, Tucker opened what is now the Women Accepting Responsibility (WAR) clinic.
Now, 15 years later, the state and the nation are buying into her dream. WAR received $4.5 million dollars from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health last month to facilitate a holistic support program for Baltimore City youth. The new program will launch at Civitas, a charter 6-12th grade school in West Baltimore. The initiative, called Becoming a Responsible Teen, or BART, will incorporate self-esteem building, bi-monthly meetings and other methods to aid in pregnancy prevention.
The funding is a milestone for WAR and will allow Tucker to hire eight more counselors, increasing her staff to 20. But even prior to the grant from Health and Human Services, the organization has seen growth. They moved from Tucker’s property to the back wing of Garwyn Medical Center and are 100 percent federally funded.
Tucker and her counselors provide life skills training, individual and group counseling and psychological analysis for beleaguered women and teens. They also offer testing for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases and offer permanent transitional housing for homeless women.
Only about five percent of her clients are HIV positive or infected with AIDS, Tucker says. Her goal is much broader? to nurture young women who are facing any life-altering challenge and guide them on the right path.
“I really wanted to have a program that would encompass the youth and help them understand decision making, goal setting, to have plans for tomorrow and to understand the impact of today’s decision,” she said. “No matter if they want to go to college or not, they want something. They may just want to buy a car; they may want to have their own apartment. Well, what are you doing today to be there or what are you doing today that will inhibit you from being there?”
“That’s what we wanted to do and I just thank God that today we are doing it,” she said.
This passion has led Tucker to assist thousands of women since the clinic opened in 1995.
Even Tucker’s employees have a personal connection with WAR’s mission. One of the peer advocates said she was inspired to work with the organization after she lost her mother to HIV. A transitional housing supervisor said she is HIV positive and was homeless until Tucker took her under her wing.
“This organization helped me all around,” said the supervisor, who asked to remain anonymous. “If it wasn’t for coming here, I would have never thought about going back to school to get my GED. It wasn’t something that I was concerned with at the time. It was my case manger here and Mrs. Tucker that motivated me and found these programs for me to get into.”
WAR provided housing, she said, taught her to be independent and take care for her children. She now lives on her own and is a sophomore at Coppin State University.
A 23-year-old, who goes by Ms. Walker, told a similar story about the family-oriented atmosphere of the program. She was also HIV-positive and homeless when she discovered WAR in March 2010. She and her 3-year-old son now live in one of the transitional houses and she volunteers at WAR twice a week.
“This is a really good program for women that need help with anything,” she said. “It is helping me grow each and every day—they send me to training to help me better myself. It’s just a wonderful program.”
She added, “If there are women out there that are HIV positive and they need help, they should come out and see what we can help them with.”