(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Eight young people living in a 30-foot RV. They’re not jumping off buildings for a reality television show; they’re sharing their reality with others.
The group has traveled half way across the country for a program entitled “Road to Hope,” discussing their experiences with HIV/AIDS under the theme “Does HIV Look Like Me?” The speakers, who completed their second of five weeks of traveling from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, will trek more than 56,000 miles, stopping at 24 schools along the way. HIV has no face, no certain look, not a specific haircut or wear certain clothes. It’s name Kim or Mike. It could be you, him, her, or a model, cook, superstar, or the bank teller, pastor, preacher,” 25-year-old speaker Amira Hikim, told a crowd at the tour’s kickoff at The George Washington University, early this month. Hikim learned of her infection five years ago while pregnant with her third child.
The group hopes to have discussed their stories with more than 13,000 students across the country by the time the tour culminates.
“I’m sure when we first walked into the room, people didn’t see us as HIV positive,” Hikim said.
Before they could begin to raise awareness among other young people, several speakers who are infected with HIV/AIDS, said they had to make themselves aware of what was going on in their bodies.
Lantz Smith said growing up in southern Oklahoma, he never received sexual education and began engaging in sexual intercourse and using drugs rampantly in his teens. However, after learning of his infection during a summer break from college, his drug use tripled to the point where he would often spend $1,000 per week on cocaine, he said.
“I was living in this bubble,” 21-year-old Smith said. “I could continue living the life I was living and it wasn’t healthy.”
Smith returned to college in his home state after taking a semester off, but felt alienated among his former friends and needed medical attention. With $45 in his pocket and two suitcases, Smith gave up his scholarship for a transitional home in Los Angeles to get the help he needed.
“I look at this story and I was like was this my life … and I’m pretty proud of it now,” said Smith, who currently works in the fashion industry in Los Angeles.
According to statistics from the National Institutes of Health, approximately half of the 40,000 new HIV infections that in the U.S. each year are in people under age 25.
Speakers said that despite their infections, they are still looking towards the future. Duane Quintana said he has been married for a year and is planning to start a family in the next few months.
“For a long time, my biggest struggle with having kids was not the actual conceiving but is it fair to them?” said 26-year-old Quintana. “Am I going to die on their sixth birthday? … I see myself being alive for a long time.”
Hikim said that while it took her about a year to accept her status, she is coping with HIV by staying happy and living a healthy lifestyle.
“When people around you accept it, you accept it,” she said.
Speaker Todd Murray, executive director of Hope’s Voice, an HIV/AIDS education and advocacy organization which is running the tour, said he hopes those who attend the discussions will take responsibility and talk to their partners about getting tested for HIV.
He said, “We don’t use scare tactics; we use us.”
Spreading the Word
Murray learned he was infected four years ago, after getting an HIV test as support for a friend who suspected infection in himself.
“I thought how in the world can I have a virus and not feel sick. It blew me away,” said Murray, who is now 24-years old. “I went there expecting to be someone else’s support and had to be my own.”
After Murray told his family about the virus, he noticed that his 12-year-old brother never saw the disease in him or him feel shameful for his infection. Murray said his brother’s affection inspired him to show the rest of the world that HIV/AIDS should not be something to be ashamed of, by founding the organizations Positive Hope and Hope’s Voice. The associations are active in bringing national attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis through education and advocacy, and currently have about 650 members in 25 countries.
Like Murray, Quintana has been reaching out to those infected and affected by HIV prior to the Road to Hope program. Growing up in a small town in Idaho with little money, he said he always knew he had the skills and motivation to do something important with his life. He founded Allies Linked for the Prevention of HIV and AIDS, or a.l.p.h.a., to keep the public connected to sexual and reproductive health services in Boise, Idaho.
“It’s even better now because I’m doing it for a good cause,” said Quintana, who currently serves as Executive Director of the organization. “I had to accomplish what I needed to do in life.”
He said a.l.p.h.a. has grown to about 300 volunteers of different backgrounds, religions, and races in the past year. The youngest volunteer is 12-years-old, he said.
Quintana said, “Really, they’re just people who care.”