Arts contest promotes HIV/AIDS awareness


Antonio Steward won first place in the performing category.

AIDA MALLARD/Special to the Guardian
Published: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 at 3:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 at 3:13 p.m.

Charisse Ahmed is taking a stand to fight the stigma and negative ideas associated with HIV/AIDS.

She is a student at the University of Florida who has first-hand knowledge of what those with HIV have to endure.

You see — she was born with it.

Ahmed delivered a powerful speech at the Black AIDS Services and Education arts competition to promote HIV/AIDS education, awareness and testing. The competition was held last Wednesday at the Thelma Boltin Center and consisted of contestants in the visual and performing arts categories.

The winners in the visual arts category were Gainesville resident MarCos T. Gutierrez, who won $200 for first place, and Kendrick Hill, a 10th-grader at Gainesville High School and a member of the Woodland Park Boys and Girls Club, who won $100 for second place. Antonio Steward won first place in the performing arts category for an original gospel song titled "Overcome." He also was awarded $200.

The contest is held each year in preparation for World AIDS Day, which is observed locally with events sponsored by BASE.

NKwanda Jah, coordinator of the arts competition and a member of BASE, was pleased with the event. "It was about young people talking about HIV/AIDS to other young people," Jah said. "The testing went very well. We tested 23 people, and we would have tested more, but we ran out of time."

The master of ceremonies were Breonna Jackson, a student at the Gainesville Job Corps Center, and Allyson Diggins, a UF grad student, The entertainment included a skit by RCP, or Respect Yourself, Check Yourself, Protect Yourself, a student organization at the University of Florida; Lynda Johnson, a local poet and author, read a poem, and Stephanie McCray, an adviser at the Job Corps Center, sang "A Broken Heart."

During her presentation, Ahmed shared stories about her life. She said her mother, who was an advocate for social justice and the first one in her family to go to college, died from complications of HIV/AIDS.

"When I was 14, my mom passed away with pneumonia," Ahmed said. "She had HIV/AIDS and I didn't know my mother was living with HIV until three years after her passing."

"My family kept this from me because of the stigma," said Ahmed, who said she's sharing her story to encourage people to get tested, "and to realize HIV doesn't come wth a face," she said.

Ahmed said learning her mother had HIV/AIDS was shocking and the main reason she is majoring in health education. She also is certified in HIV/AIDS counseling and trained to perform the HIV/AIDS rapid test.

It was while training to test others for HIV/AIDS that she tested herself, for practice's sake. And the test came back positive. Ahmed said she couldn't believe it was happening to her because she had not engaged in risky behavior. She said people rallied around her, giving her support and encouragement.

"They helped me realize HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence," Ahmed said. "If you take care of yourself, you can live your life."

Ahmed encouraged participants to take control of their lives, get tested regularly and know their status. "I'm not ashamed, not depressed or sad," Ahmed said. "I'm sharing this information to educate and help other people."

"An illness is not described as an identity trait," said Ahmed. "Why is HIV/AIDS used to describe who someone is? HIV doesn't define who you are."

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