By Audra Stallard
Hi. I’m a student from the University of Missouri on an alternative spring break trip here in Dallas. When I applied for Alternative Spring Break I marked “Health and Medicine” as the issue I was most interested in getting involved in, especially since I plan to go to medical school.
When I learned that this group would not be dealing with patients and HIV treatment from the point of view of nurses and doctors, I was honestly disappointed. While volunteering this week though, I have learned of the rising importance of knowledge, advocacy, and outreach.
Often, HIV is not perceived as a large problem in the U.S. anymore. When one mentions AIDS we imagine the death tolls in Africa and images from National Geographic. In reality, we need to open our eyes and think of our friend, our sorority sister, our aunt, our hair stylist, or our travel agent. I have not come to this conclusion via a lecture from a HIV/AIDS advocate, but from my own experiences this week.
We have been volunteering at the Resource Center, Abounding Prosperity, and Aids Arms. In each place, I have been struck by one observation: that the majority of the HIV positive clients look completely normal. From TV and movies we have concluded that all those with HIV are gay, sickly with hollowed faces, and poverty stricken.
With this stereotype in mind, I look around in everyday life and confidently say, “I don’t know anyone with HIV.” All of my perceptions have been proven wrong this week. Many of the people walking into the facilities this week look healthy, have smiles on their faces, and are wearing the average t-shirt and jeans.
If I were to see them on the street, I would never in a million years think that they deal with a disease from day to day, that they take a cocktail of medications every morning and that they have had difficult conversations with family and sexual partners. Much of America does not see HIV/AIDS as a prevalent issue in our country, partly for the reason that this disease does not define these people. But that does not at all mean that the problem is solved. Not even close.
I feel foolish for feeling originally disappointed in the work we are doing on this trip. Yes, treatment is very important and I will always be excited to work with physicians, but advocacy and spreading awareness is the most essential and important step to defeating HIV/AIDS in the US. So here’s my first attempt at sounding like a real HIV/AIDS advocate…
ALL Americans – gay, straight, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, middle class, upper class, men, women, teens, adults – we all need to get real. Getting tested for HIV simply requires a cheek swab nowadays. No needles necessary and it is completely free. We really have no excuse for not getting tested. I’ll admit, I have never been tested, but whenever I return to Columbia, Missouri after this eye-opening spring break, no one will be able to call me a hypocrite. I’m getting tested and you should too.
University of Missouri Sophomore
Alternative Spring Break Participant