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My Voice Can Affect Change

My name is LaWanda Wilkerson. I live in a small town called Henderson, North Carolina and I am HIV positive. On March 26-28, 2017, I got to be a big part of an event called AIDSWatch through a scholarship provided by The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. This one event has changed my life in so many ways and has given me the confidence to speak out against the stigma that is placed upon people with HIV/AIDS and how budget cuts on programs that help fund housing, medicine, and education affect not only me, but others living with HIV/AIDS.
My AIDSWatch journey began when I stepped off the plane in Washington D.C. and met an amazing group of people who are not only fighting for my rights, but for the rights of many others living with HIV/AIDS right here in North Carolina. One of the people I met was Cathy Taft. Cathy and I shared our journeys and how we deal with living with HIV. (I still consider myself a newbie since my journey has only been three years, as of April 2017). We talked about how we felt upon receiving our diagnosis, how afterwards we became depressed – I myself still deal with this on a day-to-day basis – and how we felt ashamed and guilty. We also talked about how our families played a big part for us on our journey of healing and accepting our diagnosis, so we could begin to live healthy lives.

AIDSWatch began Monday morning with a powerful speech by Jesse Milan Jr., President and CEO of AIDS United! (If you were not empowered by his speech, then I have no idea what it would take for you to be empowered.) We were briefed on policies and HIV criminalization laws across the US. We also heard great testimonies and stories from people living with HIV who have overcome challenges and made a great impact on how we, the HIV/AIDS community, are viewed in American society. These stories have me not only emotionally moved, but also empowered to make a difference and contribute to the fight as well.

Monday afternoon, I attended a session by SASI which, to me, was an eye opener of how funds for programs, such as Ryan White, are distributed to southern states. We also learned about the research on how HIV/AIDS has affected people in the South. Unfortunately, my roommate and I came to the conclusion that the South is still stuck in the late 80’s and 90’s with their views of HIV/AIDS.

Monday evening, my roommate and I attended the Positive Leadership Award Reception, where some amazing people were awarded for their efforts in fighting against stigma and HIV criminalization, and making sure that the research for HIV/AIDS continues. My roommate and I spoke with Jesse Milan Jr., who encouraged us to continue to advocate. We also had the honor of meeting Elizabeth Taylor’s grandkids. We thanked them for the scholarship to attend and the shocker was that we were greeted with hugs and thank yous from them to us for attending AIDSWatch. They were genuinely interested in my story and I was taken away by the encouragement I received from them. On the ride back from the reception, my roommate and I were in awe of how down to earth and dedicated Elizabeth Taylor’s grandkids were and that they take the time to come out to advocate with and get to know people who are affected by HIV.

The next day, we went to Capitol Hill to voice to our state legislators and representatives that they should support programs that fund health care for people who cannot afford insurance and HIV/AIDS research. We also spoke out against harmful and discriminatory HIV criminalization laws. Being a newbie, this was an eye-opener for me, but also a humbling experience. We had the opportunity to meet with Sen. Richard Burr’s office and they listened to what we had to say and how each of the HIV-related programs have and still are helping us. I know for myself without the Ryan White Program, it would put a strain on my finances to purchase my medicine each month even with insurance.

One meeting that stood out to me was with Sen. Thom Tillis’ office. His legislative assistant, Joe Nolan, listened to each of our stories on how cutting funding for programs would affect those in the room, as well as the people back home in North Carolina who we were representing. He showed interest as well as compassion. This gave me a sense of hope. And, when I emailed him the following week to thank him for his time, he responded that same day and encouraged me and others to please call and email if we had any concerns (this really took me by surprise).

After the day was done on the Hill, it was time for us to head back to the good old state of North Carolina. The last special moment of my day happened in the lobby while waiting for a friend so we could both head back to the airport together. Elizabeth Taylor’s grandson, Rhys Tivey, approached me and asked me how our meetings went on the Hill. That 10 minute conversation changed me in ways that I can’t explain. It has empowered me to advocate in the effort to change the way our lawmakers view these programs and to also erase the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.

AIDSWatch not only educated me, but instilled in me confidence that I never knew I had. Meeting so many people and hearing their stories encouraged me to speak out on these issues and that even my small voice can affect change. I can only pray and hope that I will have the opportunity to be able to go next year’s AIDSWatch and future ones to use my voice to speak on the issues and advocate for change.

This story was originally published by NC AIDS Action Network

Posted By: LaWanda Wilkerson - Monday, May 01, 2017

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