It was hard enough discovering that her husband had been diagnosed with AIDS, and that she herself had tested HIV-positive.
But what really sent Susan Rodriguez reeling, those dark days in 1995, was learning that her 3 ¹/₂ -year-old daughter, Christina, also harbored the virus.
“I knew nothing about AIDS, nothing about HIV,” Rodriguez tells The Post. “So when they started throwing all this medical terminology at me, it was like another language — and I had to take a crash course.”
‘It helps to know this is a safe, supportive environment where they can discuss anything.’
She did. The Brooklyn College graduate, by then a mother of three, quit her legal secretary job and threw herself into understanding the disease that threatened their lives, networking with doctors, nurses and activists. And while there were projects for women in San Francisco, Rodriguez and others were determined to bring an “HIV University” to East Harlem, their own high-risk community.
That was 20 years ago. Since the winter of 1998, thousands of women around the city have taken free classes in everything from the latest medical research and legal rights to art, computers and cooking at Rodriguez’s nonprofit SMART University: Sisterhood Mobilized for AIDS/HIV Research & Treatment. Nobody who turns up is turned away.
“Women come in the door, depressed and isolated,” says the 58-year-old Rodriguez, a dynamic woman with a warm smile. “It helps to know this is a safe, supportive environment where they can discuss anything — mental health, domestic violence. What’s said here, stays here!”
Her husband died the year after he was diagnosed, but she and her children are thriving: In 2005, her daughters Christina and Samantha founded SMART Youth to help male and female teens and young adults impacted by HIV/AIDS.
After bouncing around different locations, SMART settled in two years ago at the East Harlem Neighborhood Health Action Center at 115th Street and Lexington Avenue. Among the many women it serves is Tara, a survivor of domestic abuse who prefers not to give her last name. Tara discovered SMART in 2011, hoping to learn more about the disease that had claimed many of her family and friends.
Along the way, the 48-year-old says, she discovered herself, and ways to stay healthy.
“I’ve learned how to cook things I never thought of eating before — tofu! Asparagus! Salmon!” says Tara, who’s lost 50 pounds. Not only that, she says, “but now I know where to go for counseling, what resources I have. I’ve been holding back a lot, and now I have to speak on it.”
For women who’ve never made it through high school, let alone college, SMART gives its graduates more than a diploma: It offers hope and, more often than not, a bag of groceries to take home.
As Rodriguez discovered, obesity is endemic, especially among the poor and the depressed. Her own struggles with weight gain inspired her to launch a “Food for Life” initiative three years ago, replete with kitchen safety, nutrition talks and cooking classes open to anyone in the community. The other day, three dozen women in hairnets were talking and laughing as they chopped onions and carrots for the dish du jour: caramelized-onion crostini.
“I never knew what goat cheese was — or thyme, or beets and bay leaves,” says Annie Reyes, 55, emptying a carton of chevre into a bowl. She says that when she joined SMART more than a year ago, she weighed 300 pounds. She’s down to 224, and feeling “energized.”
“You learn how to eat the good stuff,” she says, happily. “Now I [have] fruits and vegetables every day.”
Classes are growing, Rodriguez says. Following a recent influx of Chinese immigrants, SMART hired a translator who speaks Mandarin.
“Enrollment’s shot through the roof,” she says, “but the funding hasn’t.” For now, SMART relies on the City Council’s discretionary funding, as well as private and public foundations and part-timers who donate more hours than those for which they’re paid.
“Sometimes you think, ‘How can I make a difference?’ ” says one part-timer, Bradley Curry, who works as a freelance events coordinator and social-media video producer. Since learning about SMART at his church last fall, he’s become the program’s videographer and social-media guru.
Watching the women laughing and cooking in the next room, he smiles. “Here, you can see you’re touching people’s lives. That’s major.”