Sisterhood Exchange Program encourages HIV-positive women to share their stories

Anne-Marie Kelley
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

Nancy Reinisch knows what it’s like to face a life-threatening illness. In 2006, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the summer of 2010, she figured out a way to use her experience to help women and men fighting the life threatening disease of HIV/AIDS.

Expanding on health work being done by her son, Chas Salmen, Reinisch set up the Sisterhood Exchange Program on Mfangano Island in Africa. She has empowered these Africans to earn a fair trade income, and to stand proudly and say, “My name is Carolyn and I am living positively.”

The Sisterhood Exchange Program idea started when Chas presented his mother with a hand-crafted gift from the Imani Workshop in Eldoret, Kenya. As race director for the Mother’s Day Mile footrace in Glenwood Springs, Reinisch began purchasing race awards from the Imani Workshop.

Reinisch then realized how powerful it would be to connect the HIV-positive craftswomen from Kenya with the women of Mfangano. She organized a sisterhood exchange where the Eldoret women would teach the Mfangano women and men the crafts of tailoring, beading and paper making so they, too, could earn an income. And then, she and her husband, Dr. Paul Salmen, secured donations to turn this vision into a reality.

“Most of the thread, scissors, connecting beads, pins, needles, c-rings and other notions were donated from women in Glenwood Springs,” Reinisch said. She called on the Roaring Fork Women’s Triathlon Team, which she coaches, along with her Valley View Hospital Cancer Coffee Walk and Talk Group, and her women friends in the valley for donations. She carried all of these supplies, including fabric for 70 aprons, in her suitcase to the Island.

“We couldn’t bring any clothes with us to wear,” Reinisch joked.

Even more impressive, she secured four sewing machines from those same donation sources, and then she and her husband transported them along the 40-hour trip, which includes a plane ride, a bus ride, a ferry ride and a three-hour wooden outboard motor canoe ride without life jackets.

Reinisch spent a week on Mfangano coordinating the efforts of these two groups of women. By the end of the seven days, the women and a few men who asked to participate had elected a person to be in charge and were creating handmade, one-of-a-kind aprons and jewelry.

More importantly to Reinisch, they were enjoying a rare opportunity to find artistic expression and to talk about their daily struggles with poverty, health and the social stigma of HIV.

“One thing that I have learned personally in my journey with cancer is that having a support network of other cancer survivors is the best medicine of all in my recovery. I realize I am not alone in my fears and concerns. Nor did I need to be ashamed of my disease,” she said.

“It is similar for the women of Mfangano Island who have HIV. They now have a support network that they never had before to guide them through the emotional and physical challenges of having HIV/AIDS. They meet weekly and talk with each other, role model positive living, attend medical appointments together and create caring friendships,” she said.

Now, Reinisch’s goal is to keep these African women busy with orders. She’s looking for stores in the Roaring Fork Valley that might be interested in selling the aprons, and hopes to find a sponsor to pay for this year’s Mother’s Day Mile apron awards.

“All I really need is a sponsor for $600 for the Mother’s Day Mile apron race awards and I will feel quite blessed!” said Reinisch.

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