A paper written by the CDC documenting cases of a rare lung infection among young gay men in 1981 marked the first official reporting of what soon became the AIDS epidemic. Just six years later, the FDA approved AZT, the first antiretroviral drug to combat the disease. Later that year, the FDA began testing a vaccine against HIV.

In 1987, as President Ronald Reagan and French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac ended an international dispute over which country could be credited for the discovery of the AIDS virus, Eva Janzen Powell sat in a local Chicago hospital with her ailing husband. Misdiagnosed with a form of cancer, Powell’s husband actually had AIDS. Only 10 months after the proper diagnosis, he died. Left in his wake, was Eva and their 18-month old son, now both infected with HIV. After burying her late husband, she purchased two more grave plots next to him.

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After the initial shock, hurt, and anger, Eva Janzen Powell was determined not to die or let her son die in the way that so many others had during those critical early days of the AIDS crisis, including her husband. So she became an activist and an advocate, particularly for children. Her son’s pediatrician encouraged her not to be quiet. For ten years, she sat on the Chicago Pediatric Community Advisory Board at Children’s Memorial Hospital, Special Infectious Diseases Clinic. She joined the board of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC) in 2002, and was a part of the Grantmaking Review Committee for twelve years. She continues to serve on a number of boards and advisory committees, including on the board of Pediatric AIDS Chicago Prevention Initiative (PACPI), a grantee of Chicago Foundation for Women. “It is so important for young women to get the care and support services they need, so they can have a baby not born positive,” she shares.

Powell was introduced to Chicago Foundation for Women after attending a panel discussion co-hosted by the foundation and CARE. Impressed by CFW’s focus on women and women’s issues, she soon became involved with annual giving. From there, she and her husband began funding the Eva Janzen Powell and Smith T. Powell Health Series, which provides funding to programs and organizations that highlight a unique issue or health concern facing low-income women and women of color.

“Women’s health is something everybody should care about. New cases of HIV/AIDS disproportionately affect women of color. It’s poverty-related. What is so appealing about CFW is that it is connected to so many organizations on the ground. And $100, $2000, $5000 goes a long way with those smaller organizations. And their work is tailored to their community. And oftentimes, that is what’s needed in that spot – trying to move just a few people along. It may be a daycare or a storefront. It doesn’t take that much to make some difference,” shares Smith T. Powell. “Chicago Foundation for Women looks at the whole woman, so I don’t have to think about chopping up my giving,” Eva adds. “I know that through CFW, I am making an impact. And, I appreciate that CFW sees the value of men’s involvement, too.”

Beyond being HIV-positive and her first husband’s death, a whole series of other life experiences led Eva to become a fierce and passionate advocate for women accessing health care and health information. They made her realize how little she knew about her own health and about navigating the healthcare system. Growing up in a small Mennonite community in Kansas, she was never taught how to take care of herself, physically or emotionally, and was instead raised to “put everyone else first. I hated that growing up.” Despite that upbringing, Eva’s mother became a quiet advocate for her, helping to care for her young son in the early days of their shared diagnosis. “My mother didn’t say much or ask questions, but when she passed I found all of these papers where she’d done research on abortion and HIV.”

On HIV/AIDS, Powell notes that “meds are still not as easily accessible and the stigma has not changed. I’m not sure how much education people are getting.”

The Eva Janzen Powell and Smith T. Powell Health Series makes it possible to change that narrative, so that, every woman and girl in the region can understand her body and be well prepared to make decisions about it for herself.

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