Commentary Sexual Health

The Experience That Led Me to Dedicate My Life to Fighting HIV and AIDS

Olivia Standifer

The driving force behind my decision to work in the field of HIV and AIDS comes from a very personal place: my own family.

To commemorate the first annual National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day, April 10, this blog is part of a series recognizing young people as key partners in the fight against HIV and AIDS and calls on leaders to fully invest in young people so we can reach an AIDS-free generation.

Published in partnership with Advocates for Youth.

See all our coverage of National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day here.

Every day, at least one person asks me what I do for a living, and I tell them I work with individuals who are living with HIV and AIDS by providing treatment, awareness, and prevention resources. People’s first response is often, “What made you want to do that?” or “It takes a certain type of person to want to work with such a horrible disease.” I’m never quite sure what “a certain type of person” means, but the driving force behind my decision to work in the field of HIV and AIDS comes from a very personal place: my own family.

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This disease has been a part of my life since I can remember. My uncle became HIV-positive in 1986, around the time I was born. The older I got, the more aware I became of how this disease was affecting my family and my uncle. Over the years, I’ve watched this wretched disease change my uncle. I’ve seen how his life was never the same after his diagnosis.

When my uncle was diagnosed with HIV, my family was of course distraught and confused and did not know where to turn for help. Back then, there was not nearly enough education or awareness or the proper medications, so to my family it was a huge scare. This was especially true for my grandmother, my uncle’s mother. She felt like there was no help for her son. Her biggest fear was that she was going to have to watch her son die from this disease. My grandmother had already lost a son at birth, so her fear of losing another son was a heartache she couldn’t imagine. The fact that my uncle is gay made my grandmother even more concerned with how he was going to receive care. My family never judged him because of his sexual orientation, but we knew society would. I believe that scared my grandmother the most.

I was about 11 years old when I began to get involved in my community with people living with HIV and AIDS. When HIV first came about it was known as a “gay man’s disease.” But over the past generation, it has affected many people regardless of their sexual orientation, age, race, gender, or socio-economic status. And now, those effects are being felt by young people. Indeed, today’s young people represent the first generation that has never known a world without HIV and AIDS. In the United States, one in four new cases of HIV occurs among youth between the ages of 13 and 24, and 60 percent of youth who have the virus don’t even know it.

We didn’t talk about my uncle’s disease much. But we, especially my grandmother, looked after him. Her love and concern for my uncle was undeniable, and it still is. Seeing how her love and care helped my uncle get through his struggle helped me decide to help other people living with HIV in the same way.

I have since dedicated my life to HIV and AIDS prevention and education. I went to college at Coastal Carolina University and majored in health promotion. This gave me the opportunity to learn about statistics, research, new medications, and what more I could do to get involved. As a senior, I did my internship at Careteam, Inc. in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where I had the chance to do hands-on HIV and AIDS prevention work. When I learned about the National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day (NYHAAD), observed on April 10, I knew I had to be a part of it. As an NYHAAD ambassador, I am responsible for arranging different activities around the community and educating others about HIV and AIDS.

There are other young people out there who are like me—young people who are committed to ending this epidemic once and for all, who are on the ground working for change, educating their peers, standing up to school boards, bringing truth to the myths. HIV is a disease that can easily be prevented with the right education, proper awareness, and resources in our communities. That’s why young people need to fight this disease. Stand with us so we can make that happen. Not just for my uncle, but for the many others who are living with HIV and for all of us who want to live to see a world free from AIDS.

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