Brenda Starks-Ross feels blessed.
Her husband died of an AIDS-related illness in 1997, but she remained HIV negative.
"I believe that God had mercy on me and I didn't get infected," Starks-Ross said. "Now I have to give back and I have to tell people to take care of themselves."
The minister and mother of two has been doing AIDS work for 21 years. In 1997 she joined the AIDS Service Center in New York City, where she is now the deputy executive director and chief operating officer.
She helps people with AIDS and HIV get their lives back on track through a program in which enrollees learn about various aspects of the disease. The center also provides HIV/AIDS patients with managers, who help them find aid programs, housing and other benefits.
"The [managers] escort them through the system and help them build themselves back up," Starks-Ross said. "They've often lost their family, they've lost their jobs, they've lost themselves."
"The programs change people's lives," she added. "I get to see people who were struggling become really positive members of society."
Many of the people the organization helps end up coming back to work for the center. About 25 percent of the employees were former clients.
"That shows we don't just talk the talk, we walk the walk," Starks-Ross said.
When she first encountered the disease, Starks-Ross said it was often a death sentence.
"I worked in an infectious disease clinic and basically we did funerals, at least two a week, and there was no hope," she said. "I know some long-term survivors, but a lot of people died. I had to build up a wall to protect myself so I wouldn't break down."
Now Starks-Ross said that one of the biggest challenges is fighting complacency.
"We have to keep reminding people that the disease can kill you," she said. "Sometimes the medicines don't work."
Some patients expect to be able to collect generous benefits for people with HIV/AIDS, she said. However, since people are living longer with the disease, benefits have become more scarce.
"It's not just something where you say, 'I'm positive I'll take medicine," Starks-Ross said. "It's a life-changing event."
When the disease first appeared, Starks-Ross said there was a severe stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. It's gotten much better over the years, she said, but there's still progress to be made.
"There are still people who don't want you to touch them," she said. "People blame the disease on gay people and drug abuse. But we know heterosexual people have it, too."
Though the fight has changed, Starks-Ross still adores the organization that she said has led in the battle against HIV/AIDS.
"I love this agency just as much as I did the first day I came," she said. "I see how we assist people in making positive changes, but all we do is help them. They do the work."
To learn more about the AIDS Service Center, click here.