Carla Davis couldn’t see the brightness of her future

“I would have never foreseen it several years ago when I first got diagnosed that this would be my life today,” says Carla Davis. “I’ve been happily married since 2011. I’m working with people and being a living testimony for people who have lived or are living the same struggle that I once did—you can’t ask for anything more.”

After receiving her HIV diagnosis while doing a 60-day stint in a prison in Illinois, Davis eventually followed up on a referral she was given for HIV care. There she met with a peer navigator. She would have never imagined that the woman helping her had once walked in her shoes. When Davis discovered that, it was a lightbulb moment. Davis recounts her journey, starting with the HIV test she took during a lockdown at Cook County Jail in Chicago. 

“Originally, I didn’t think that testing positive was even a possibility. Not that I wasn’t doing anything risky. But just to show how uneducated I was, I really thought that I was able to look at a person and tell whether or not they were HIV-positive. So I just assumed that the people I slept with weren’t HIV-positive because by my standard, they didn’t look like they presented with HIV. So I go down and get tested just to get out of the cell, never thinking that my test will ever come back positive. 

“It wasn’t like it is today. You can get a rapid test and get your results today. That’s not how it went. Two weeks later I got sentenced to the penitentiary and I hadn’t heard anything. So I thought that everything’s good. As they say, no news is good news

“So I was down in Dwight Correctional [Center]. I was there maybe a week or two when I get a summons to report to the nurse’s station. The doctor said to me, Is your name Carla? I said yeah. He’s like, Did you take an HIV test at Cook County Jail in Chicago? I said yes. He said, Well, we just got your results and your test came back positive. We’ll give you a referral. You can go back to your dorm now. Just like that. No, Do you need to take a moment? I came in with trust issues. I came in broken, I came in feeling like the world is against me. And the last thing I needed was to have a doctor that didn't understand the depth of the fact that I just got diagnosed with HIV. I went back to my dorm thinking, Oh my God. I’m gonna die. This is it. This is not how I wanted to go. 

“After that I didn’t hear anything else. I just assumed that maybe they got the wrong person. I ended up getting transferred to Logan Correctional Center. I didn’t hear anything there either. 

“Then a week before I was going home they called me to confirm that I’m positive. This time they gave me a moment to calm down. The guy was like, Just take however long you want. Then two days before I left, they gave me a referral to the CORE Center [a medical facility in Chicago].

“Once I got released, obviously I didn’t go directly from jail to the CORE. I was still in denial, so it took me several months. They assigned me to a peer navigator. She took me all around to all of the people I had to see—mental health, public benefits, the nutritionist, and then my doctor.

“I remember sitting in a waiting room, just terrified. My peer navigator looked at me and said, You’re scared, aren’t you? And I said, Yes. She said, Don’t be scared. I felt the same way when I walked through these doors several years ago, and they’re going to take very good care of you here.

‘When I first saw her I would have never thought that she was HIV-positive. I was still under the assumption that when you’re HIV-positive, you die.’

“She didn’t know the seed she had planted when she shared her story with me. Because when I first saw her I would have never thought that she was HIV-positive. I was still under the assumption that when you’re HIV-positive, you die. You don’t live a healthy productive life. Here she is healthy, gainfully employed, working to help other people who are newly diagnosed. And I was just like, Wow, okay, she’s not dead and she was diagnosed long ago. She had been diagnosed about 10 years before I met her.

“I’m not going to say that as soon as I heard her story that my whole life changed. It was the seed that was planted that made me know that life is possible after being diagnosed with HIV. 

“I went on several more years in my addiction going in and out of the penitentiary, and it just was fate. There was a God’s blessing over my life. I came into the CORE Center one time and I was like, I don’t want to do this anymore. You know, I want to do what she’s doing. They had a program where you could sign up to become a peer. But one of the qualifications is you had to be clean and sober. I knew that some things had to change in my life in order for me to do that. So I went to treatment, and got clean. 

“I met my husband, who at the time really didn’t know a lot about what was going on with me. He just knew I kept coming to this place. And I knew that at some point I was going to have to tell him what was going on. He said, That doesn’t change how I feel about you. If anything, that makes me love you more. I want to take care of you. That was one of the biggest issues for me. Who’s going to ever love me knowing that I’m HIV-positive? And he was willing to take it on, telling me, We’re in this together. That gave me even more of a push to do better. We just bought our first home in 2020.

“I was working part-time at the CORE Center and then I was offered the opportunity to work at Association House of Chicago [a nonprofit promoting health, wellness, and economic opportunity]. The catch was that the job was full-time. I was worried about giving up my SSI [Supplemental Security Income] benefit. What if things didn’t work out? But the people at SSI explained to me that as long as I continued to report my earnings, that if anything changes, you can always get back on. So that was great. I could try out the job for a while and go back on disability if it didn’t work out. I did HIV testing and outreach. 

“While I was there, they allowed me to go to school and get my high school [GED] diploma while working full-time. The job actually required a diploma. But my supervisor, who hired me, said, I see something in you. We’re going to make sure you get that diploma. I was the valedictorian of my class. There’s no way I was supposed to get that job. I didn’t have the qualifications. 

“I ended up coming back to work at the CORE. Now I’m in college, working towards my CDC [Chemical Dependency Counseling] certification to become a drug counselor. It’s been very stressful. But the friendships and bonds I’ve built have helped me.

“Today I’m the first line of defense, as we call it. I have a sit-down with new clients and I explain our case management and everything we have to offer. I just really talk with people and help them feel at ease. 

“Then their case manager assists them with whatever their needs are, for example, getting a birth certificate, applications for SSI, finding day care and food vouchers, and connecting them with our employment specialists. If they’re homeless, the case manager helps them find a shelter and gives them referrals for housing or Section 8 [federal housing assistance].

“Once all of that is taken care of, my job is to keep in continuous contact with them and verify that their needs are being met. I help continue an open dialogue and assure them that whatever they need, they can contact us. We now are able to enroll not only people who have a corrections background but also cisgender and transgender women who are newly diagnosed or who have issues keeping their appointments. I love my job.

“I think everyone in my life was strategically placed there by the hand of God. My supervisor at Association House and my mentors at the CORE Center always had a kind word for me and encouraged me. I am deeply grateful for the people who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.” 

The Women Evolving program is a collaboration of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the CORE Center, the Sinai Health Systems, and the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated (NAEFI).