“The question I get most, the one I hate, is why I went into his room. And why I helped people. Again and again, ‘Why did you do it? How?’ The answer is, ‘How could I not?’ The real question is, ‘How could you not?’” — Ruth Coker Burks, All the Young Men
Perhaps one of the first things new Tyson Foods team members learn, and something that is at the forefront of all the work we do at Tyson, are the Tyson Team Behaviors 5 Cs: Caring, Candor, Creativity, Collaboration, and Commitment. One such behavior that sticks out to me, especially during Pride Month, is Caring. I’m reminded of Ruth Coker Burks’ story, which illustrates just how great of an impact simply caring for others can have.
During the dawn of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, when the virus was referred to as the “Gay Disease,” Ruth was a young mother living in Hot Springs, Ark., about 3.5 hours away from the Tyson Foods world headquarters in Springdale, Ark. In 1984, Ruth traveled to a Little Rock hospital to visit a friend of hers who had cancer. While visiting her friend, she noticed a room down the hallway with a large red bag over it. She saw nurses draw straws to see who would have to go in that room. Clearly nobody wanted to. Ruth had an inkling that lying in the room was an AIDS patient and felt compelled to visit the patient, seeing that hardly no one else would, not even the medical professionals. Inside, she found a frail young man in the hospital bed, appearing to weigh less than 100 pounds. The young man told her he would like to see his mother before he died.
Ruth stepped out and walked over to the nurses’ station to tell them the young man wanted to see his mother. Shocked that Ruth had even gone into the man’s room, a nurse laughed and responded with, “Honey, his mother’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming. Nobody’s been here, and nobody’s coming.” Nevertheless, Ruth managed to get his mother’s phone number from one of the nurses and gave her a call. The young man’s mother told Ruth her son was a sinner, and she wasn’t coming to see him as she considered him dead to her when “he went gay.” She further told Ruth she would refuse to claim his body after he died. This is a conversation Ruth would unfortunately have hundreds of times as she helped care for over an estimated 1,000 patients throughout the AIDS crisis in Arkansas.
Ruth returned to the young man’s room to tell him his mother wasn’t coming, but before she could mutter those words, he saw Ruth and said, “Oh, momma. I knew you’d come.” He lifted his hand up to Ruth, and not knowing what to do, Ruth simply held his hand and said, “I’m here, honey. I’m here.” He died 13 hours later with Ruth by his side.
Over the next decade, even without any medical training, Ruth cared for hundreds of LGBTQ folks in Arkansas who had largely been abandoned by their families. She would take them to doctor appointments, pick up their medications, help fill out forms (including death certificates), and would be by their side to offer kindness when no one else would. Ruth also used her inheritance to properly lay over three dozen people to rest when the time came, and nobody was there to claim their bodies.
Ruth’s acts of selflessness embody what it truly means to care for someone else. Even though her actions made her an outsider at the time, she didn’t let that stop her from doing what she felt was right. She didn’t let that stop her from caring.
Ruth Coker Burks will be honored at this year’s Northwest Arkansas (NWA) Pride Parade, along with Washington County Justice of the Peace, Evelyn Rios Stafford, the first openly trans person elected to office in Arkansas.
As we approach the end of Pride Month, I hope you’ll take some time not only in your work lives, but also personal lives, to exhibit kindness, lend a helping hand, and show others you care.
You can read more about Ruth Coker Burks and the story of her efforts to lend a caring hand to many ostracized individuals in the LGBTQ community here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/03/aids-angel-ruth-coker-burks-dying-gay-men
I also highly recommend Ruth’s book, All the Young Men, available for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0802157246