Youth Voices for Global Activation is a five-part blog series to shine a spotlight on youth and young people. Launching on International Youth Day (August 12) and running through International Day of the Girl Child (October 11), "Youth Voices for Global Activation" celebrates and empowers young leaders and organizations dedicated to addressing challenges that disproportionately impact youth. More importantly it aims to highlight the integral role of youth voices in developing and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Youth -- the future leaders, heads of family and professionals -- play an important, multifaceted role as powerful agents of change. We need to ensure that young people have a seat at the table as the world sets the global health and development agenda for the next 15 years.
As an HIV advocate and ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF), I often draw the courage to speak out from many other brave young people around the world. The voices of Malala Yousafzai, Michel Chikwanine, Hannah Alper and Ally Del Monte -- to name only a few -- inspire me to share my own story of living with HIV in order to effect real, lasting change that will lead to the AIDS-free future we're working towards.
Globally, there are more than 2.1 million teenagers who are living with HIV, and I am one of them. Like almost all children who are HIV-positive, my birth mother passed the virus onto me when I was born. By six weeks of age, my HIV had already progressed to AIDS and I was on life support. Doctors predicted I only had a few weeks to live.
It was 1998. Many people knew very little about HIV and were still very afraid of the virus. After more than 200 phone calls and rejections, doctors finally found a couple that would take me in and care for me during what they believed would be the last few weeks of my life: Don and Kari Murphy.
The Murphys already had their hands full. They were raising five children at the time, all with special needs, but they still felt that they could offer me love. They feared that I would die alone in a cradle, so they never put me down. I was in a sling or in their arms or laying in between them in their bed for almost a year. I was not just loved, I was beloved -- and I knew it. I kept getting stronger and growing. Doctors diagnosed me with mild cerebral palsy, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and a learning disability, but I persevered. I worked hard to overcome my physical and learning disabilities. I gained weight, and learned how to walk and talk.
I still can't ride a bike or skate, but I did learn how to use my voice. In a big, boisterous family like mine, if you want the last cookie, you'd better speak up! And since then, I've never been afraid to stand up for myself or for others.
I knew I was sick but didn't know the name. When I was seven years old, my parents sat me down and told me that I was living with HIV. They told me that I had to keep it a secret because people might be afraid, but I wasn't very interested in keeping it a secret.
I knew I hadn't done anything wrong so I just started telling people. Kids were okay with it -- they didn't know what it was either. Their parents, however, were another matter. Parents uninvited me to birthday parties, gave me disposable cups and utensils to use when I visited, a neighbor even banned her children from playing with me. Other friends I knew who were living with HIV were forced to switch schools or even move to new towns after people found out they were living with HIV.
But the challenges I faced only made me want to speak out more. No one, especially a child, should face fear, stigma, or discrimination because they are living with HIV. I knew, even at that young age, that my story could help educate people and eliminate the stigma associated with the HIV virus. I had my family's support and knew that even if my story helped just one other kid like me to not feel alone, it was a story I had to share.
So I started sharing it -- anywhere and everywhere I could! By publicly speaking out, I am showing people that I am strong, I am healthy (my viral load is undetectable), and that I will live a long life, marry and have children. And thanks to the programs, research and advocacy of groups like the EGPAF and Johnson & Johnson, I know that together we will achieve an AIDS-free future.
To all the #YouthVoices out there: Your story and your voice is important. We all have something to say and shouldn't be afraid to speak out. Our voices will shape the world into a happier and healthier place -- a world where no child has AIDS.
Check back in the coming weeks for the continuation of the #YouthVoices for Global Action series featuring young change-makers and their important part in the global effort to end poverty by 2030. Join the #YouthVoices conversation on Twitter, and help us invest in today's and tomorrow's leaders.