In a nondescript office in southeast Nashville, a tremendous amount of work is done and one-of-a-kind services are being provided to the local community by way of a nonprofit called W.O.M.E.N., which stands for Women On Maintaining Education and Nutrition. And like most nonprofits, the work being done is on a shoestring budget and by a small, but dedicated, staff. In this case, the staff is led by Catherine Wyatt-Morley, who founded W.O.M.E.N. in 1994, after losing her husband, her job and almost her life following her HIV diagnosis. Today, Catherine shares her journey over the past 21 years, as well as things she’s learned, people who have inspired her and her vision for the future of her nonprofit and the city that she loves. Welcome Catherine Wyatt-Morley as today’s FACES of Nashville profile.
Tell us about you.
I’m a mother first to my three children, Brandon, Aaron and Jalyon. And I’m a person who loves the work that I do.
And what do you do?
Part of what I do is develop unique programs and services that address gaps in our community. In addition to that, I also do a tremendous amount of outreach, working with the underserved, as well as the population that I call “the voiceless.” Those are the women who have significant incomes and resources, but who are silent for fear of losing those resources. When we think of HIV and STDs, we always think of that woman who is less than we are … that woman who is selling her body or battling substance abuse. We don’t think of the women with tremendous resources. But I know this because I was once “her.” We had three kids, good incomes, the big house in Brentwood. I had the material trappings that mean nothing when held up against the lens of HIV or domestic violence.
Before you were diagnosed with HIV, what were you doing?
I had a General Motors background, and we moved down from Michigan to work for Saturn. I literally thought that is what I would do with my life. You put in your time, you retire and you sit on your 401k. That’s what people did.
And then what happened?
I went in the hospital in March of 1994 to have a hysterectomy, and when I came out, I was very ill. Then on April 12, the next month, I went to my OB/GYN for a follow-up, and that’s when I was told I had tested positive for HIV. So my husband needed to be tested, too.
What happened when the results came back for him?
In that window of wait, I kept holding out hope that he would be negative and someone would be around to take care of the kids. But he was diagnosed and was much sicker than I, and he had to be put on medicine right away.
[Editor’s note: Catherine’s husband passed away, leaving her to raise their children while fighting her own battle against HIV.]
What was the turning point that led you to found W.O.M.E.N.?
After I was diagnosed, I came to realize that there was nothing in Williamson or Davidson counties that represented me as a heterosexual black woman. It wasn’t so much about race as it was about gender. Everything I was reading about HIV was about men. There was nothing in my local community. W.O.M.E.N. started as a very small support group in my home. Now, it has become the first and oldest HIV women’s support group in Tennessee.
What sort of specific services do you provide that other local agencies don’t?
We are different in that W.O.M.E.N. is the only organization in the southern United States that is founded, organized and administered by an African-American woman living with AIDS. Secondly, we ask our clients, “What services do you need in order to sustain yourself?” We do a lot of navigation — meaning, we don’t just refer people to this place or that place. We try to navigate her through the health care or social services system. We also try to assign peers, so that she won’t walk through whatever she’s walking through alone. In the insanity of diagnosis, I found so much solitude in other women, black or white, who were living with HIV even longer than me. I could look to them for support and advice … to have that person, that peer, was important then, and it’s important now, as well.
Why did you decide to focus strictly on women?
We have actually grown to expand our services to men — 32 percent of our client base is now men. Also, while we started as just the HIV support group, we have since expanded to include domestic violence and human trafficking. Domestic violence is important to me because I’m a survivor. Trafficking is important to me because I have seen it. Girls sold just as you would go to the store and buy a piece of meat.
What has been your biggest hurdle to overcome in life, work or both?
In work, money. It takes money to provide the services, so that’s been a tremendous hurdle. Personally, it’s not been an easy road living with HIV. Women have a hard time with the medications, especially women of color, because of the way access to meds is not a given. We cannot assume OK, we get HIV, we take a pill. Not true. There’s no cure for HIV because it is so personalized. The medication that works in me may not work in you.
What has been your proudest achievement in the work you do?
The proudest thing for me would be that it’s been 21 years, and we’re still standing. Through adversity, we are still standing. God knows there has been a lot of crap, but we’re still standing.
What ways can our community get involved with your work?
I have a staff of 11 and a volunteer pool of between 30 and 35. And while there is always room for more volunteers, the most important way the community can help is funding. I have identified a 30-acre property about an hour from here, and we’re trying to raise the funds to acquire that property, which will house residents and participants, HIV positive and post-breast surgery patients. Additionally, it’s in a medically underserved area, so we intend to establish a medical clinic that will provide services to the rural community, as well. Right now, we’re just looking for those funds to help us.
Who has been your biggest mentor in life, work or both, and why?
The biggest mentor in my life is a man named Ian Mayo-Smith. He has been a tremendous strength in my life. I call him my brother from another mother. He’s a 90-year-old, tall, big-nosed white man, and he’s been my rock. When my kids were young and I became a single mother, I was being rejected by everything and everyone. I had lost my job, was kicked out of my church and on and on. I had written letters to my children because I thought I was gonna die. One of the only friends I had was a woman named Karen. She suggested that I submit these letters as manuscripts, which led me to Ian. And from there, he not only became the publisher of my first book, but he also became a trusted, longtime, really, really, really good friend.
What do you do or where do you go when you need to recharge?
I absolutely love the mountains, so every opportunity I get, I escape to Gatlinburg. My children and I lived there for a while after I lost that big house in Brentwood, and it’s where I wrote a lot of my first book.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
To not take life so friggin’ seriously. And trust your gut. I made so many mistakes by not trusting my gut.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Looking at my life in 10 years, I want W.O.M.E.N. to be mature enough so that I can mentor, coach and groom someone to take it over. By then, we will have our clinic and we will have stepped into the whole vision, and it will be time for me to hand over the reins.
What’s the most important lesson you have learned in life?
Live with purpose. Without purpose, we literally perish.
Thank you, Catherine, for sharing your world with us today. To learn more about W.O.M.E.N. and to find out how you can volunteer and get involved, visit educatingwomen.org or call (615) 256-3882.
And thank you to Ashley Hylbert for the great photographs in today’s article. See more of her work at ashleyhylbert.com.