Know Your Neighbor: Debbie Barnett

  • "You know, we’re coming up on our 30th anniversary this year. When we started, it was a group of folks who met in a living room because their friends were dying of AIDS and they didn’t know what to do. People in the hospitals didn’t know, doctors didn’t even know how it was transmitted, so there was such a lot of ignorance around it since it was a new epidemic happening. Back then it was a death sentence. And it no longer is, because of medicine and science and the amazing progress that we’ve made. If it’s caught, then with proper nutrition and exercise, you can get on the medicine and live a long normal and healthy life, just as you would without it. It’s a matter of getting tested, and catching it in time.” — Debbie Barnett

         Los Angeles native Debbie Barnett, an East Nashville resident for 20 years now, came aboard as director of marketing and communications for Nashville CARES 10 months ago. In the years before her involvement, the organization had indeed gone from a living room to a sizable structure on Thompson Lane. Nashville CARES offers services annually to 55,000 Middle Tennesseans infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, including HIV prevention education to more than 35,000 youth and adults, and essential support services to men, women, and children living with the disease.
         In addition to doing swab testing for the HIV virus (of which they did almost 12,000 last year alone), many more services are offered at the facility. “Here in the building we do a lot of behavioral health counseling, which is psychology and counseling for people who have been diagnosed, especially people who have been recently diagnosed, because there’s a shock that they go through for a while,” Barnett says. “A lot of our clientele are low income, so we do a lot of case management that helps with things like housing and utilities and food, and just helping connect them to the right resources. We help out on a ton of insurance, getting people signed up for both health and dental — dental health is extremely important to people with HIV because teeth can deteriorate quickly, and so we have two entire insurance wings here that do nothing but billing and processing and getting people signed up during open enrollment and get insurance for everybody.”
         Born and raised in Los Angeles, Barnett has worked almost exclusively for nonprofits or otherwise benevolent associations for her entire career life. Prior to Nashville CARES, she spent over a decade at World Vision, a nonprofit disaster relief organization. “We did child sponsorship,” Barnett says. “We would sponsor a (concert) tour in exchange for an opportunity to give an appeal from the stage, and get kids sponsored, so I managed everything from the volunteer effort, to working with the artists onstage to give them direction on how to give the appeal and that sort of thing. I did that until about seven years ago.”
         Given how that job didn’t necessarily tie her to living in California, she moved to East Nashville during her tenure there and became active in the community. (Two years ago, she took over management of the East Nashville listserv). After leaving World Vision, she went to work at Siloam Family Health Center, which cares for low-income refugees and immigrants. “I was there for five years until I came to Nashville CARES, which was just this past June,” she says.
         Barnett’s hobbies are part-time avocations. Blue House Photography is a business she ran to keep the lights turned on in the lean times between working at the nonprofits, and then there’s debsperfectbite. com, an appetite-inducing selection of photo essays on Barnett’s favorite different recipes.
         But her passion now lies almost entirely in her work. She says, “We’re making progress, but there’s still such a huge number of people who are HIV positive and don’t even know it, because they’re not being tested, and not being proactive about their health, so we still have a lot of work to do. The disease is still in epidemic numbers. It is improving, and now it’s just a matter of catching people before the disease progresses in them and it’s too late.”