ALL ABOUT KARRAKER
For 17 years, Cynthia Karraker has been a strong voice for those living with AIDS
(originally published March, 2007)
AFTER 20 YEARS, CYNTHIA KARRAKER IS STILL DEVOTED TO HELPING FAMILIES AFFECTED BY HIV / AIDS
by Doug Hoagland, The Fresno Bee
(originally published Tuesday, August 9, 2005)
Reprinted with permission
Committed to Caring
When her husband died of AIDS, Cynthia Karraker found a cause, and some skeptics. They wondered whether she had staying power or would wilt as time passed. Now 20 years later, the indomitable Karraker says, “I knew I was committed. And I am.”
On Sunday, Karraker stood under the towering pines of a church campground in Yosemite National Park and welcomed two bus loads of people with HIV/AIDS and their family members to a four-day camp.
The crowd lugged suitcases and pillows, and one of them, a blond boy of 8 who had been to camp before, told Karraker with a lopsided grin, “I was missing you.” She said she missed him, too.
A decade ago, Karraker started the free camp because she believed that patients with HIV or AIDS needed time away from home to have fun.
She had lived the disease with her husband, Randy, a well-known Christian musician.
Randy Karraker was one of the first AIDS patients in the Valley, and his widow became one of the first AIDS activists in the region.
“She has brought the human face of AIDS to the community,” says hospice founder Nancy Hinds.
Randy Karraker died in 1985. In 1990, Cynthia Karraker started All About Care, a nonprofit organization to help women and children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Hinds is on the board of directors. In 1996, Karraker began the summer camp known as Camp Care .
The Fresno woman is a one-person social service agency.
At Fresno ‘s University Medical Center , where low-income people with HIV and AIDS go for treatment, she plays an important support role, says nurse manager Sue Flammang: “She is the only person I can go to at the drop of a hat.”
Dr. Tegest Hailu, a family practice physician and HIV specialist at UMC, says Karraker has “a huge heart. She is always a phone call away, and she always comes through. I don’t know how she does it.”
Karraker has helped people pay electric bills, cover the rent and get groceries at Thanksgiving. A woman who needed help telling her children she was HIV positive found the words from Karraker. And she once paid for piano lessons for a child in a cash-strapped household.
Karraker also has tried to reconcile estranged family members before one of them died from AIDS. Since the early 1980s, the disease has killed more than 1,000 people in Fresno , Kings, Madera and Tulare counties. Advances in medicine now keep many people with HIV from developing AIDS; HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. The new drugs, however, aren’t quick fixes, Karraker says, and they don’t change attitudes that stigmatize patients.
“We still have family members who make them eat off plastic or paper plates, and they can’t use the restroom at home,” says UMC’s Flammang. “It’s sad that there is still so much ignorance and fear.”
‘Crazy about each other’
Karraker experienced some of it. It was part of being with her husband. ” Rand ,” she called him and still does as she smiles broadly and says: “We were crazy about each other. I still am wild for him.”
Randy and Cynthia Karraker married in 1979, and he told her about his previous homosexual experiences. She accepted her husband’s past and doesn’t believe it’s worth talking about today.
Also, in 1979 Cynthia Karraker didn’t know she was taking any health risk in marrying; the public hadn’t heard of HIV or AIDS yet. She is not HIV-positive.
Karraker is critical today of men who hide from their female partners what her husband told her. The much-reported practice is known as being on the “down low.” It involves bisexual and gay men having sex with other men and putting their female partners at risk for HIV.
“You might think you’re doing it for the hell of it, the experience of it, the thrill of it,” Karraker says. “But the ripple effect doesn’t end with the man doing what he damn well pleases.”
A diagnosis changes everything for a family.
Randy Karraker’s diagnosis came in the spring of 1984, and he was treated in both San Francisco and Fresno . He spent the last five months of his life at then-Fresno Community Hospital, where employees were so afraid they would open the door and push in his food tray on the floor.
“They knew what disease was in that room,” Karraker says.
Randy Karraker died in his wife’s arms in May 1985, two weeks before their sixth wedding anniversary.
He was 32.
Cynthia Karraker says she sometimes senses her husband’s presence and finds strength in that: “I really feel quite blessed. I have been in some uncomfortable situations in the last 20 years, but I have never been afraid. Never.”
Soon after Randy Karraker died, Cynthia Karraker started informally helping AIDS patients and their families. Names came to her from Marilyn Mitchell, then a communicable disease specialist for Fresno County who needed help with a growing public health issue.
‘A strong personality’
The two women became friends, candor a common bond. “Cynthia has a very strong personality, and she is difficult to deal with if you get in the way of something she thinks is right,” Mitchell says. “But I think that’s a positive thing. There are very few people who will stand by their convictions at a large risk to themselves.
“She wants individuals to be treated humanely.”
Karraker also wanted people to know what her husband went through. So 18 months after he died, she broke a silence that had surrounded his death. Karraker spoke out in a story in The Bee with words that were both tough and tender. She talked of their love, and how Randy Karraker’s parents and siblings rallied around him and how hundreds of others sent cards and letters.
Randy’s father was Fresno pastor Bufe Karraker, who died in 2001.
But she also spoke of unnamed ministers in Fresno who knew the Karraker family and did nothing. She was angry at that.
Karraker praised Jews and entertainers for lending their names to the early fight against AIDS, and added: “Christians are sitting on their butts, trying to figure out what category of sin this fits into.”
Today, Cynthia Karraker says, some churches aren’t judgmental about HIV and AIDS, “but it’s case by case, church by church, pastor by pastor” and she still sees families ripped apart.
“When I have to sit at somebody’s bed because I promised them they would not die by themselves, and Mom and Dad won’t go because they are so full of that religious right hoo-ha, I think: ‘Put the damn stuff down and hug your child,’ ” says Karraker, who is Catholic.
She and her husband had no children.
When she started All About Care, she left a full-time job as a retail store coordinator, and today she is the only employee of the nonprofit, though she relies on a corps of volunteers.
Karraker raises money from private donors, collecting $118,000 in 2003, the latest year for which public records are available. She raised $139,000 in 2002 and $133,000 in 2001. In each of the three years, she took a salary of $36,000, according to the public records.
Over the years, community organizations have recognized Karraker for her work, which includes running support groups for women.
More women now have AIDS than 20 years ago, says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the rate of new diagnoses recently decreased slightly, based on information from 32 states, according to the CDC.
‘She just stayed with me’
Fay is one of the women helped by Karraker. She wouldn’t give her last name, but she is at Camp Care this week and says she has “a full blown” case of AIDS.
A Fresno woman with a warm smile, Fay says she was angry and frightened after being diagnosed, and that for several years she directed those emotions at Karraker.
Fay says she spread rumors and stirred discontent in Karraker’s support group: “But she just stayed with me. Her patience and her love are beyond words.”
Ginger Pippin and her adult daughter, Terresa, are two other women helped by Karraker. Terresa Pippin, 36, is partially paralyzed and can barely speak because of two AIDS-related strokes.
“At first, we didn’t want anyone to know my daughter had AIDS,” says Ginger Pippin, a former Fresno resident. “We knew Cynthia wouldn’t blab it all over.” Pippin says she initially believed AIDS is “a dirty thing.”
Gradually, her thinking changed. “I don’t know how, but I know Cynthia helped me realize that I love my kids no matter what they do,” Pippin says.
Terresa Pippin came to camp with her son and her older sisters.
‘No stigma here’
The campers are mothers, fathers, children and siblings. They are white, Hispanic and black.
Many have come before.
Fay says she returned for a sixth summer because it’s a place where her disease isn’t an issue.
Dr. Hailu, one of 60 camp volunteers, says people get a chance to see life beyond HIV and AIDS at the camp: “There is no stigma here.”
Karraker laughs at the irony of her starting a camp. She hates dirt, bugs and the nosey bear that once wandered up to her cabin.
“I’m 100% princess,” she admits, smiling.
But Karraker gets serious as she explains something about her work.
“This isn’t the easiest job in the world, but it’s fulfilling to my spirit,” she says.
“With just a little bit of effort, you can make such a difference in someone’s life. Isn’t that swell?”
Women to be honored with the annual Fresno award turn life experiences into tools to help others.
(originally published Sunday, October 14, 2001)
Reprinted with permission
It didn’t take Cynthia Brazil Karraker long to realize what she needed to do after her husband’s death: It was getting it done that was the difficult part.
Karraker and her husband, Randall “Randy” Dean Karraker, decided together that they would try to make life easier for AIDS patients and their families.
They knew firsthand of the struggles and stigma the disease brought with it. Randy, a musician and son of Northwest Church leader the Rev. Bufe Karraker, died after a hard-fought battle with the disease in 1985.
Randy Karraker was one of the first people from the Valley diagnosed with the disease. It was so new here that he received much of his treatment in San Francisco.
“Being there [San Francisco], it was so different than being in Fresno. They were so much more open to the disease itself and supporting it. That’s why we decided when we came back to Fresno we would do something to help people with HIV,” Cynthia Karraker said.
That mission became a passion that Karraker embraced. She left her 20-plus-year career as a buyer and retail store coordinator “to do something with and for HIV.”
In 1990, with no medical background and initially shunned by those in the health-care profession, she launched All About Care.
“Basically, it is a support service agency for women, children and families, infected and affected by HIV and AIDS,” said Karraker. While men also are supported by All About Care programs, she said she wanted to focus on women, children and families because fewer services were available to them.
All About Care includes support groups for women with HIV/AIDS, mothers of sons or daughters lost to or living with the disease, and children whose parents are infected.
Eight years ago, Camp Care was started by Karraker and a committee of volunteers and has now turned into a partnership with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which provides a Yosemite campground for the program. Karraker said she started the annual camp — which attracts several hundred participants from Kern County north to Mariposa County — to bring families together for fun and take their minds off the disease. With medical expenses eating up a family’s income, there is very little money left for fun activities. “I realized, we’ve got to get a little fun in there,” she said.
Karraker said she receives some of her greatest satisfaction from having brought the AIDS Quilt to Fresno with the support of a tremendous committee and launching Camp Care, something she said has made a tremendous impact on families.