story and photos by Debbie Barnett
Margaret Williams, best known as Miss Margaret, is somewhat of an icon at Nashville CARES, a nonprofit that serves those living with and at risk for HIV. There’s hardly a person in the building who hasn’t been warmly greeted by her at least once a day.
Miss Margaret’s journey has been a rough one. For a while, she was living alone under the train trestles near Room in the Inn. She was homeless, struggling with drug and alcohol use, and HIV positive. Then she spent her 54th birthday in jail, and that was her wake-up call.
In 2003, Miss Margaret became a client of Nashville CARES and began attending alcohol and drug addiction classes and counseling and participated in any program that focused on healthy living. “I wanted my life back,” Miss Margaret said. “And I knew CARES could help me get there. But the first step was becoming comfortable in my own skin living with HIV. Their support groups helped me do that.”
In 2009, Miss Margaret began volunteering at Nashville CARES and is now what’s considered a “peer volunteer” — someone who is living with HIV and volunteers their time to help other clients navigate becoming “comfortable in their own skin” and how to best utilize the programs at CARES. She shares her story and experiences with others and helps them feel that they are not alone.
One thing she says is important to her is to teach others how to disclose their HIV status to friends, family and potential partners. “It took me a while to feel okay with telling people I’m HIV positive,” Miss Margaret explains. “It can be awkward and nerve-wracking. You just don’t know how people will react. But it’s important for me to be honest about it.”
Miss Margaret also helps other clients get into the right support groups, access Wellness Wednesday where they can stock up on fresh produce and learn healthy tips, and she encourages those who are newly diagnosed with HIV. “Being HIV positive is no longer a death sentence if you take your medication,” she stated emphatically. “Yea, there are some side effects to the meds, but you get used to them. If you don’t take them, the side effect IS death!”
Miss Margaret is passionate about advocating for those living with HIV/AIDS. She volunteers with the Tennessee AIDS Action Network telling her story at statewide meetings on Capitol Hill that are addressing health policies; and is a member of the Positive Women’s Network. She has a real passion for advocating for women who are living with or at risk for HIV. “For many years, this has been thought of as a ‘gay man’s disease’,” Miss Margaret says. “But women – especially in minority groups – are definitely at risk. And I need to make sure we get the word out so they can be protected and get help if they need it.”
She has been clean and sober since 2008 and she attributes that to the alcohol and drug classes she takes at Nashville CARES. “The last 11 years have been the best years of my life,” Miss Margaret said with a huge smile. “And it’s only getting better!”