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CINCINNATI (AP) — Doctors have told Kelly Chambers four times that her death is imminent.
Four times she has proven doctors wrong.
People she loves are sure they know why: Chambers was put on Earth to comfort the youngest victims of an affliction she has battled for 20 years, full-blown AIDS.
Now, as the December holidays grow near, 108 children with AIDS in 72 local families are leaning on her once more. They're counting on her pediatric AIDS nonprofit to provide toys and household and personal hygiene items — "the barest of necessities," Chambers said of diapers, blankets, socks, bleach and space heaters.
"AIDS can make a wealthy person a poor person," she said.
Chambers, 46, founded For AIDS Children Everywhere, or FACE, in 1992. It receives annual assistance from Macy's and from students and faculty at Anderson High School but needs the region's help to meet these needs.
Housed in a rent-free windowless basement office at Holmes Hospital since its founding, FACE runs a bare-bones operation. FACE doesn't even have Internet access. Neither Chambers nor her mother, Dixie Sucher, 65, takes a salary. Sucher, who works for A Taste of Class Catering, buys stamps out of her own pocket.
Since The Enquirer first wrote about Chambers in March 1999, the newspaper's readers have responded generously. They've donated new toys and boxes of diapers and tens of thousands of dollars to FACE that Chambers, her mom and a few dozen volunteers have taken deep into corners of the region where most people don't want to go — into the homes of extremely sick and dying people.
"We wouldn't be here without you," Sucher said of the newspaper.
Chambers' closest and latest brush with death came May 1 from complications of aspiration pneumonia. She stopped breathing. Her daughter called paramedics, who rushed to her trailer home in Cleves and resuscitated her.
"I guess it wasn't my time yet," said Chambers, who takes 46 pills a day to survive.
She contracted HIV from unprotected sex in 1986, the same year she graduated from Oak Hills High School. She didn't know she was infected until March 1991, when her 6-month-old daughter, Crystal, had to be admitted to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center with flu-like symptoms. She died eight months later of AIDS.
Despite the anguish and guilt that she had killed her own child, Chambers didn't succumb to self-destructive urges. In January 1992, she and another HIV-positive mother who'd lost a child to AIDS started FACE. Chambers didn't want another woman to experience the hurt, isolation or judgment that she had.
In 1993, Chambers and her husband, Clarence Chambers, became legal guardians of another child. The girl's parents had AIDS. Her mother committed suicide. Her father died in Chambers' arms. The man was alone, she said, recounting a story she had told The Enquirer in 1999.
"I climbed into his bed at hospice and put his head in my lap," she said. "I stroked his hair and said, 'I've got your baby. I'll take care of your baby. Your baby will be OK. Go ahead if you want to. It's OK.' Then he took a deep breath and died."
Today that girl, Leanna Smallwood, is 25 and living with AIDS. Kelly Chambers is not only her mom but her hero. "For me, for them to take me in, understand me and treat me like I am their own, it's amazing," Smallwood said.
She called 911 the morning Chambers stopped breathing. She couldn't bear another death.
"My birth mother died. My birth father died. My stepfather died," Smallwood said of Clarence Chambers, who was HIV-negative but died in 2007 of a heart attack. He was 45. "I wasn't going to lose my stepmom."
Sucher wasn't going to lose her daughter.
"God has brought her back so many times," she said. "It took two whole weeks to get her out of the hospital. I prayed. I just prayed."
Low-income people with HIV and AIDS don't want to lose Chambers, either.
She is one of them, filled with compassion and empathy. FACE clients have likened Chambers to an addictions counselor who has struggled with her own addiction. She doesn't judge. She doesn't look for a reason not to help.
"It doesn't matter how you got it," Chambers said from her desk in the small, cluttered FACE office, near a bumper sticker that has been there since the early days, "Fight AIDS, not people with AIDS."
Reductions in federal food programs — the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) — have forced Chambers' client families to spend more on food.
Chambers does not back down. She is a fighter, no matter the challenge, comparing herself to a soldier on the front lines of the disease. FACE has sponsored children with AIDS on what it calls "memory-making" experiences to amusement parks, zoos and aquariums, even simple picnics.
Chambers knows from her own experience that seeing children happy and forgetting for a day that they are sick can sustain a mother through the darkest hours. She counsels mothers new to the frightening world of HIV and AIDS. She speaks to groups in high schools and colleges, including nursing students. She hopes she has convinced at least one high school girl from thinking she is invincible and prevented her from getting HIV.
"Then I've done something good with my disease," Chambers said.
Now almost 23 years into her mission to bring comfort to the often inconsolable, Chambers takes joy in how some of her earliest child clients have lived long enough to finish school, hold down jobs or even move into careers in Atlanta and Chicago.
She credits researchers and doctors for advancements in treatment and prescription drugs that are responsible for a 15-year increase in life expectancy for some patients with AIDS. Their average lifespan increased from 56 years in 2000-2002 to 71 years in 2006-2007, according to the New York-based National AIDS Treatment Advocacy Project.
Although down from peak rates in the late 1980s, the rate of new HIV cases annually in the United States has stayed at about 50,000, or about 19.1 per 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Improved, too, is Americans' understanding of AIDS. "People are a lot more educated about it," Chambers said.
Yet throughout the 1990s, before people became more sophisticated in their understanding of HIV and AIDS, she often was the first person with AIDS that many people touched or hugged. "I heard that all the time," said Chambers, who accepted it as part of her mission.
These days, most of the agency's client children and families are African-American or African immigrants, groups with a greater incidence of contracting the virus.
Although some of the faces of FACE have changed, the needs are the same: bus tokens or cab fare, child care costs, utility bills, food.
No matter how many times she has read children's holiday wish lists, Chambers is moved by their simplicity and humility. Children want bug spray or a safe for their mother's AIDS drugs so no one steals them. They want a hat and gloves or winter coat.
"One boy wanted a Cadillac," Chambers said. "I said, 'What?' Until I read that he wanted it for his mom, so she wouldn't have to ride the bus so much."
People are moved to donate to good causes at the holidays. FACE can stretch a $25 check a long way. Financial gifts don't come in January.
Almost all of the holiday gifts FACE distributes are provided by Anderson High School students and staff. English teacher Pam Pendery has organized the drive for all of its 18 years. Each of the 50-plus homerooms receives names and wish lists of two children and one suggestion for each child.
"They usually go over and above and buy more gifts — blankets, gloves," Pendery said.
Chambers is the heart of FACE and the motivation for people to get involved. She's plainspoken and blunt, yet gracious and exceptionally polite.
"Kelly goes about it almost like she's stealth," Pendery said. "It just keeps happening because she is so driven by these children who suffer greatly from this disease. You can't help but want to help. They keep her going. I can't imagine what might happen when she is gone."
Chambers has no plans to leave just yet, even though the toll the disease has taken on her is painfully evident. She surprised herself by living to 40 and now wants to live at least four more years to reach 50.
Her weight has fluctuated through the years, down to an emaciated 98 pounds at one point, because of drugs' side effects. She now is uncomfortably thick through her mid-section. By her best count, she has had pneumonia 17 times.
Neuropathy in her feet and legs — the painful sensation of pins and needles often associated with chemotherapy — prevents her from sleeping more than three or four hours a night, and her sleep comes in fits and starts of minutes, not hours.
Her eyelids droop heavily over her green eyes, yet the disease hasn't been able to dim their fire.
"My purpose in life isn't done," she said. "My purpose is to make the lives of people who walk in my shoes much better. God is keeping me here until my purpose is finished."
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com
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