By Rev. Elaine Blanchard
Because I was invited to be the writer for the CHOICE: Life Over AIDS campaign, I have had the pleasure and honor of meeting some very special Memphis people. Jamie Russell-Bell came to Memphis from her home in Knoxville nineteen years ago. She came to the University of Memphis looking for education and a sense of independence. Jamie’s mother and a high school drama coach had encouraged her to pursue higher education. Although Jamie’s mother had not gone to college herself, she made it clear that college was what she wanted for her daughter. Jamie left home and family behind only to focus on the study of homes and family. She majored in anthropology. Jamie was the first person in her family to graduate from college. She went on to graduate school where she earned a masters degree in medical anthropology.
Jamie’s research work brought her to the HIV community, connecting with persons living with infections and connecting with healthcare providers in the field. Her interest went back before her college days. Jamie recalls visiting a family friend when she was sixteen years old. The man was important to her family and he was dying with AIDS. His disease was awful enough but the social isolation that came with the disease stimulated Jamie’s deep sense of outrage. “It was not right!” People living with HIV infections and people dying with AIDS should not also be exposed to society’s negative judgment, shame and blame. The sixteen year old girl was motivated to be part of the solution.
Initially, Jamie went to work in the area of reproductive health. She worked for Memphis Center for Reproductive Health and then went to San Francisco where she worked for Planned Parenthood. Both of those jobs involved her in the world of HIV and AIDS. She did testing and made referrals. After four years in San Francisco it was love of and longing for family that brought Jamie back to Tennessee. Back in Memphis she went to work for Friends for Life as the director of client services and loved the work, the people and the chance to make a difference in the lives of the clients.
Jamie was good at what she did. That is why the state of Tennessee recruited her to move to Nashville where she became the Director of HIV and STD Prevention. Jamie wrote the grant for Rapid HIV Testing, a grant that made HIV testing accessible in emergency rooms and in treatment centers. Clients in Memphis and Nashville could know their status after only a short wait. Jamie had an office downtown and the chance to build the foundation for an administrative career. But she felt that her interests and passion fit better in the area of direct client services.
Memphis was fortunate when Jamie chose to return and settle into a home and a family life of her own. Tootsie Bell and Jamie Russell-Bell have combined their life and love to create a home. Tootsie is an artist and a jeweler. Jamie works for the LeBonheur HIV Community Network where she is the Training and HIV Testing Coordinator. Their son, Miles, recently celebrated his first birthday.
Jamie was recently accepted at the Loewenberg School of Nursing at the University of Memphis. At the age of sixteen this amazing woman saw a man living with an awful illness and Jamie wanted to be part of the solution. She knew the friend of her family deserved to be treated with more respect as a whole person. Jamie was encouraged by her mother and her drama coach: grow, learn, study and become more. She did. And we all benefit from her dedication to being part of the solution in our healthcare challenges.