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From GayNZ.com

Hall of Fame
Karen Ritchie of the Cartier Bereavement Trust
By Matt Akersten
5th December 2007 - 09:53 pm

Karen Ritchie
Karen Ritchie is the face and founder of the Cartier Bereavement Charitable Trust, which raises money to assist with funerals for those who have passed on of HIV/AIDS related illness.

She also used her personal experience as a sex worker to help shape and pass the Prostitution Reform Bill in 2003.

During the day, you'll find her sitting behind the welcome counter at Auckland's HIV testing Burnett Centre.

We got to know our community's wonderful mother Karen a little better…

GayNZ.com: Why did you start the Cartier Bereavement Trust?

Karen: My friend Courtney Cartier was a drag queen at Caluzzi, and she passed away in my arms at Herne Bay House in the year 2000. Most of us know someone who's living with HIV/AIDS, or someone who's died of HIV/AIDS, and I guess my passion for the Cartier Trust is because I've walked the walk with her. And I've known people throughout my life who have been affected by the illness.

So that's pretty much how it started, and the fact is that there are so many people who have been living with the virus now for some time. Some people don't have the funds for a funeral - they spend what money they have when they're living. So it's very important to me that they have some assistance in that final part of their journey.

What we have is a very unique Trust - nobody else does what we do. I was in Canada last year speaking at a harm reduction conference - people there who were HIV positive couldn't believe it, they thought the Trust was the most amazing thing. I really think that the community, who own the Trust, need to pat themselves on the back, and be very proud of what they've done.

How many funerals does the Cartier Trust fund each year? And how much do they cost?

Our last funeral was in 2006. Since we started in 2003 we've assisted with a total of ten funerals. I can't mention names, because it's very important that people who approach the Trust know that everything is confidential.

Funerals are expensive, and we don't actually pay for the whole funeral. If you don't have an 'estate' (more than $12,000) when you die, then we will assist with the funeral, the same as WINZ do. WINZ pay out up to $1,600 - we even got that for Courtney Cartier. We confirm with the undertaker that WINZ is assisting, and then we confirm we will pay X amount of dollars ourselves.

There are a lot of people around now living with HIV/AIDS - and remember medication is no cure - so although we currently have a surplus of around $34,000 invested, we don't have a crystal ball to see when people are going to die. Most funding places would see our surplus as good management.

What's your role at the NZAF's HIV support and testing Burnett Centre?

I just do all the admin, but also supporting the people who come into the centre. Many have fears around being diagnosed with HIV, so there's a 'motherly' role involved.

Karen with her family - and Miss Ribena - at Wigs on the Waterfront
The Burnett Centre… Cartier Bereavement… it sounds like you're dealing with bad news on a regular basis. How do you unwind from all that?

I sometimes do get drained emotionally and mentally. But the respect and the love that I get from the community - it tops me up. Also, I'm a mother and a grandmother, so I have special times when I'm around my family.

I have a son who lives with cancer, and a brother who's dying from cancer. So people ask me why I give my time to people with HIV, but I always say that if I can be part of reducing the stigma that people get around HIV, then that means the world to me.

Where did you grow up?

On a farm up north, but I was born in Huntly. My very first school which was by Pokeno. So we were a farming family, in those old days when you struggled and mum still washed with copper. You didn't have a lot of things in life, you just had the bare essentials. But we had lots of love in our family. I was very grateful that I came from a very safe family.

What do you like about working with the LGBT community?

I think most people know that I was a sex worker for a big part of my life. So I was strongly involved with Tim Barnett in taking the Prostitution Law Reform Bill through Parliament - and I'm in the process of reviewing the Act now. So I can relate to the stigmatisation.

Even though I am a heterosexual woman, the straight community never accepted my life when I was a sex worker. They were always in judgement of that. The people that did accept me and that world were the LGBT community. Always. It was like "you go girl!" So I've always had a very strong love and respect and understanding of how difficult it is to fight for your rights.

What does your family think?

I've been divorced for a great many years. I raised my son on my own from when he was about six year old. He's a wonderful young man, and he's always known about my choices in life - I've never hidden that from him. He's a businessman today and I have two lovely grandchildren.

When the Prostitution Law Reform came through and I came out of Parliament that night, he was the very first one I phoned, saying "your mother's legal!" And he was just so thrilled with the achievement. We changed a law, and he was so proud.

Tell us your highlight of 2007.

Well I think a wonderful highlight for me was Peter Taylor re-opening a bar [Dorothy's Sister]. That was amazing, because I remember him saying to me at a birthday party a while before, "Karen, I am seriously thinking of opening up a bar. I'm meeting the bank manager. I've had HIV for 20 years - I'm not dead yet, and I'm broke, and I'm going back into business." So I said "you go for it!" That was a huge highlight. He's a wonderful man.

If you could have one wish come true, what would you wish for?

People that I love and care about - and everybody else - should not have to die too young. They should not have to face these terminal illnesses, and the struggle, and the stigma that goes with them. If I could wipe that out, that would be my wish.



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