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 2017 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.
Tuesday was the day when we went to the Hill (Capitol Hill) to voice to our legislators and representatives that they should support the increase of HIV/AIDS funding and to encourage the powers that be not to cut funding for 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 a eye-opener for me, but also a humbling experience. I felt that while we were in Sen. Richard Burr’s office, they listened to what we had to say and how each of these 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).
But the one meeting that stood out to me was the one in Sen. Thom Tillis’ office where his assistant, Joe Nolan, listened to each of our stories (even mine) on how cutting funding for any of these programs would not only impact the ones in the room, but also the ones back home in North Carolina who we were representing as well. I felt that he showed interest as well as compassion. This gave me a sense of hope when I emailed him the following week to thank him for his time and for meeting with us. He responded back 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 this, we headed to the cafeteria to grab lunch before meeting with other representatives where another event impacted me as well. This was from a stranger who approached us and thanked us for all we did and how it has impacted him and his family. His brother was diagnosed with AIDS.
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 with our representatives went on the Hill. It was a shock to me that he remembered me from the night before, but also the fact that he actually was interested on how it went. 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 some of the stigma that is associated with HIV/AIDS.
This three day trip not only educated me, but instilled in me confidence that I never knew I had in me. 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.
Check out My Time at AIDSWatch 2017- Day 1 here.