This day every year makes me emotional as I reflect on the lives of those who lost their battle, those who continue to fight and those who unfortunately will still contract HIV. For those who don’t know my story, you are probably wondering why this has such an impact on me, right?
When I first entered recovery, I was on PTI (Pre-Trial Intervention) and had to do community service. They handed me a book and said “pick something”. I selected the South Jersey AIDS Alliance and the rest is history. It was then I started what would become a 15 year commitment to those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. From Case Manager to County Director to Advocate and County Ryan White Grant Manager.
For me, I am reflecting on the lessons that I learned when I worked for the South Jersey AIDS Alliance. As a new “inexperienced” Social Worker and a recovering addict, I was the “crazy white lady” stepping into Bridgeton wanting to help the world. Yes, many of my clients thought it and willing shared as we got to know each other.
I didn’t the people who walked through our doors as “diseased”, “hopeless” or less than. I saw them as people who because of their bad choices were sick. “There by the grace of God go I” was a constant reminder for me since I too had made bad choices over the years.
So what could I do in a little office (actually half a duplex) with little funding, the only paid staff, a handful of volunteers (who in many cases were also clients) and a heart to save them all. In the early years, AIDS was not a “manageable disease” for many it was a death sentence. It took babies from their mothers, it took moms and dads from their kids, it took people from all walks of life – yet no one talked about it. I can remember the first few funerals where the family said “they died of cancer” because they did not want their loved one to be remembered for the stigma of HIV/AIDS. This was the world I dedicated a large portion of my professional life to. Belinda grew up joining me in this battle to end the stigma of HIV/AIDS. She played with kids who were HIV-positive, she shared her toys, she helped with fundraising, as well as sorting and delivering holiday toys. She, too, grew up with a passion for helping people.
Fast forward to today, where little is spoken about HIV/AIDS unless a celebrity says the words. It is now a manageable disease so we seldom hear the prevention message. There are medicines, so why worry, right?
We aren’t there yet – we are close. There are still 1.1 million people living with HIV in the US today. Only 1 in 4 people are making their way through the obstacles called health care and medications. Let’s not be complacent. Let’s continue to share how HIV can be transmitted.
Today is in honor of those who lost their fight, and those who continue to fight every day. You blessed my life more than you will ever know. Thank you for allowing this “crazy white chick” to be a part of your lives.
The theme this year is “Leadership, Commitment Impact”. What will you do to make an impact? Consider donating to agencies who help improve the quality of life for those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.
Have a ThirtyOne-derful day!