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.
My journey began when I stepped off the plane at the Ronald Reagan Airport 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. While we were waiting on the hotel to prepare our rooms, I got to spend time with Cathy and talk to her. I listened to her speak about her journey and how she deals with living with HIV. I also got to talk to her about my story, as well as my journey (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 about it (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.
After checking in and getting unpacked, we were able to go downstairs to the lobby and watch Lee talk about AIDSWatch 2017 and why we were there while he was doing a Facebook Live series for the North Carolina AIDS Action Network called View From the Hill. This was a great experience because we were able to watch and know that we were part of a cause that is fighting to end the stigma people living with this diagnosis face. It is important to speak out against budget cuts that affect programs that help people afford their medicine, doctor visits, counseling, and housing, while also speaking out against HIV criminalization laws and asking that Congress grant more funding for HIV/AIDS research.
After this, we were able to attend the US PLHIV (People Living With HIV) Caucus Reception, where we got to meet with others across the country who are dealing with the same issues and speaking out on the same issues as we were. It was at this meeting where, through Cathy, I got to meet some more fellow North Carolinians, Esther, LaShaun and Diashita. I enjoyed fellowshipping with them and I am happy to have made some lifelong friends in them.
After coming back from the reception, I finally got to meet my roommate and fellow scholarship recipient, Alisha Hurwood. After talking to her, I found out that she lived in North Carolina for a while and went to UNC Chapel Hill (go HEELS!). She now lives in Florida and works as an attorney with Legal Aid dealing mainly with HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS).
Monday morning started out with us attending the Welcome and Introductions, and what a powerful one 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.) Not only were we briefed on policies and the HIV criminalization laws across the US, but we also got to hear some great testimonies and stories from people living with HIV who have overcome challenges and hurdles and have gone on to make a great impact in the world on how we, as the HIV/AIDS community, is looked at and viewed in American society. These stories have left me, not only emotionally moved, but also empowered to make a difference and contribute to the fight as well.
The next session that I got to attend was SASI, which, again, to me was a eye opener of how funds for programs, such as Ryan White, were distributed to southern states and the research that was done in these states of 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).
The next event that my roommate and I got to attend was the Positive Leadership Award Reception, where some amazing people were awarded for their hard work in their communities across the US. These people were honored for their effort in fighting, not only against stigma, but also in support of the fact that having HIV/AIDS is not a crime and making sure that the research for HIV/AIDS continues. It was at this reception I had the honor of meeting Elizabeth Taylor’s grandkids. My roommate and I just wanted to go up and personally thank them for allowing us to receive the scholarship to attend, but the shocker for us was that we were greeted with hugs and thank yous from them to us for coming and attending AIDSWatch. It was in that moment we were asked to share what events led to us wanting to attend AIDSWatch. I had the opportunity to share how I found out about my diagnosis and my journey of how I am dealing with it day to day. To my amazement, they were genuinely interested in my story and I was taken away by the encouragement I received from them. We also got to speak with Jesse Milan Jr. from AIDS United, who encouraged us to continue to advocate.
On the ride back from the reception, my roommate, Alisha, and I were still in awe of how down to earth and dedicated Elizabeth Taylor’s grandkids were to the Foundation and the tireless work that they do, when they could easily just give money and not take the time to come out to advocate and talk to people who are affected by this.
Check out My Time at AIDSWatch 2017- Day 2 here.