A South Philadelphia woman embraces her role as the new face of HIV.
Lewis' sister introduced her to a friend who was also HIV positive. The friend took Lewis to BEBASHI, a service Lewis now offers to others.
"Once I started dealing with it, I felt free," says Lewis of a period she describes as "coming out of hiding." "I didn't feel ashamed anymore. Talking in a group felt comfortable, and I just did it more and more."
Now when Lewis talks about HIV, she often manages a smile.
"My sister told me that one day the hurt was going to pass, but I couldn't see it then," she says. "Now I can say she was right. I went from having my head down to having it up. I get a natural high talking about where I was and where I am now."
On a wooden coffee table in Lewis' South Philadelphia home sits her senior prom picture--Lewis in a satiny navy blue gown, and her date, a friend and fellow church member, smiling handsomely at her side.
Just this past June, Lewis, a mother of five, graduated from Audenried High School after attending classes four days a week, from 3 to 6 p.m., for two years, often surrounded by children less than half her age.
Lewis' high school diploma is mounted on her living room wall, surrounded by certificates from job training and outpatient counseling programs. But Lewis says her proudest accomplishment is simply living.
Today the virus in her blood stays at undetectable levels as long as she takes her medication--four different drugs twice a day.
Feeling blessed, Lewis no longer hides from HIV. She often speaks about her disease at churches and community meetings. Her final class project at Audenried was a presentation on HIV and AIDS, and she recently participated in a commercial for the Philadelphia AIDS Consortium, where she introduces herself as a grandmother with HIV.
"If I don't come forward, people aren't going to believe this is happening," she says. "Our people are dying from AIDS, and I want to help somebody make sure this disease doesn't hit another person. This affects everybody. People have to know this thing is real."
Next month Lewis will join the AIDS Fund's annual walk to raise money for HIV- and AIDS-related services. Lewis is the team leader for her church, Church of the Redeemer Baptist.
After that, she'll focus on her church's fledgling AIDS ministry, Hope Inspires Victory. With her pastor's committed support, Lewis wants to hold regular meetings at the church, and to encourage women to educate and empower themselves. All this gives her a bittersweet sense of purpose.
"If I can reach one person, I'm happy," she says. "I still cry sometimes, but my tears come more for the people who aren't listening. HIV is the ugliest secret in our community."
Kia Gregory (email@example.com) writes about an exhibit of prisoner art on p. 23.
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