In a small Indiana town, there lived a mother who loved her son.
This is the story of Jeanne and Ryan White. But it also is the story of all mothers and sons. Pure maternal instinct protected a child from a world that was not ready to accept him, and through this a boy gained a lion’s courage to not only overcome nonacceptance but to change it.
There is much more to this story, but you will have the opportunity to hear it from Jeanne in her own words at a special event at DACCO (Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office Inc.) in Tampa next week.
In the 27 years since 16-year-old Ryan White boldly addressed Congress, his legacy of awareness and acceptance continues.
When I was in school, HIV/AIDS was a prominent topic often discussed in class, and Ryan White was as familiar a name as Rosa Parks. As we were told the story of how Ryan was not allowed to attend school after being diagnosed with AIDS, I can distinctly recall classmates joking that they wished they “could be kicked out of school, too.” Perhaps, though not in its finest hour, at least the topic was being discussed, and certainly this message has resonated with me decades later: Ordinary people, extraordinary accomplishments.
Indeed, it is quite a powerful lesson for school-age kids. But as is the case with many issues, we tend to become complacent.
In the 24 years since Ryan was never given the chance to grow up, an entire generation has grown up — but perhaps has not heard the message. The HIV epidemic continues to grow in Florida, ranking the state third-highest among all states in reported AIDS cases, and is disproportionately affecting Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Yes, my backyard and yours.
But mention the name Ryan White to anyone younger than 25 and be prepared to see a polite nod or a blank stare. These facts are not merely coincidental, as the cycle of high-risk behavior is closely associated with education and awareness.
Don’t be misled. There are many individuals in our community we encounter through our work at DACCO daily who are still vigilant, passionate and knowledgeable about this issue. They may be our own staff members or those who come in for a free HIV test. Or participants in our prevention and education groups, volunteers for our outreach events or clients enrolled in our counseling and treatment programs. They come from diverse backgrounds, but they have one thing in common: the conviction that even in 2014 — especially in 2014 — HIV/AIDS remains worthy of contemplation, discussion and action.
As we have witnessed over time, stigma and discrimination rarely disappear, but rather take on different forms — often times skillfully hidden, other times painfully overt. It can be in the form of race, religion, ethnicity, social standing, economic status, orientation, gender, age and yes, even a disease.
Puzzling, isn’t it, that diabetics and cancer survivors are rarely ostracized for their medical conditions? But this is the harsh reality for many people living with HIV/AIDS or even a substance abuse disorder. Pseudo-logic is often the desperate tool of last resort, with outrageous claims that people either “deserve to be infected” or that it is simply “their own fault.”
Although I’m tempted to meticulously refute all of these notions, that is not my purpose today. I simply would like to, as a parent and as a son, invite you all to attend this free event and hear a story of a mother and her son.
Anil Pandya, MPH, is director of health services for DACCO. “The Ryan White Story” will be from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. Wednesday at DACCO, 4422 E. Columbus Drive in Tampa.