Florida Southern’s Allies club hosted free HIV testing on campus on Nov. 4.
The testing took place in the wellness center gym and the Dubose Conference Room and the event has been a work in progress for the club since its reboot last year. Allies president, Cliff Ellis, told The Southern last Spring that it was a goal, and seeing it happen last week was a huge success for the Allies.
“Getting the event created and actually hosting it was a success,” Ellis said. “This is not just a one-time thing, we want this to be an ongoing thing throughout the entire year.”
Allies secretary Michael Wellish was in full support of the event and its cause.
“I’m really grateful that we have the opportunity to bring this to the campus and know that our campus is pro-treating and helping people be aware of their status and fighting this terrible disease,” Wellish said.
Allies hopes to host a similar event later in the year, most likely happening in February, and encourages students to attend with the promise that results and participation will remain confidential. All members of Allies were instructed not to ask participants about their experience or their results.
[pullquote]The reason for doing testing on campus is simple. Allies wants to raise awareness about the issue.[/pullquote]
“Awareness and education are a couple of the things that Allies advocates (on social issues and social diversity) so this is just one aspect of that,” Ellis said.
The testing consisted of three methods. Students had the option of a blood draw or a swab in the mouth which do not yield immediate results, or a rapid test which returns results in just 15 minutes.
In addition to the free HIV testing, Allies also invited Cathy Robinson Pickett on campus to speak with students in a session later that evening.
Pickett is a strong advocate for HIV awareness following an experience of her own that left her HIV positive over 30 years ago.
While working her way through college Robinson Pickett was robbed and raped by three men and was infected with HIV at the age of 18. Due to laws in place at the time, it was undisclosed that one of her attackers had HIV and it wasn’t until she was 26 that she was diagnosed and knew she carried the disease. She is now going on 50 years old, beating the odds and living a fairly normal life.
“It was 1991 and AIDS was a very scary thing in 1991. You got infected, you got sick and you died and that’s all you saw on TV in 1991,” said Pickett.
Pickett’s initial reaction was fear. To overcome that fear she quickly found a support group in Jacksonville, within a mere number of days, and realized that she needed to persevere rather than live in fear.
“I knew that if I stayed wrapped up in the emotion of it I would die, that was going to ultimately be my outcome,” said Pickett.
“I really quickly tried to use that to make as big of a difference as I could. I still thought I was going to die really quick because that’s what the doctors told you, so I thought if I have five years to live, what am I going to do in five years? And then I got to the end of that five years and I thought, ‘what if I have another five years?’”
Moving forward, she aimed to make a difference and now leads an HIV/AIDS advocacy and awareness group called Friends Together. The organization began in 1999 and has since aimed to help those struggling with this disease as well as the families of those infected. They have even traveled to Africa to provide supplies to those infected in that community.
Robinson encourages students to get involved in raising awareness if they have an interest and she hoped to create a spark of social activism in her speaking to the students.
“To make my life valuable, if I make a difference in the room tonight, you’ll walk out of here and talk to three people about what I’ve told you,” Pickett said.
Aside from word of mouth, Pickett suggested that students can make a difference by having hall meetings around sexual responsibility, STDS and social justice, arrange events for awareness days on campus, get involved with organizations like Friends Together and donate or volunteer to help with the next trip to Africa with Friends Together.
The motto of Friends Together is “only men, women and children can get AIDS,” emphasizing the fact that it can happen to anyone.
“If you saw me walking down the street you would never have guessed [that I was HIV positive]. I would be the last person you picked, the old white lady. Nobody thinks anything bad is going to happen to us,” Pickett said.
Pickett stressed the importance of students participating in the next testing session with Allies.
“Testing is so important today because if we can test you, get you into treatment and care, and have you make some lifestyle changes [don’t drink, do drugs or smoke because they’re immune suppressors] you’re going to live a long productive life,” Pickett said. “Not saying that you won’t have ups and downs along the road, but HIV is quickly becoming a chronic manageable illness as long as we get you tested early.”
Pickett also added that it does not have to be a sexually transmitted disease and anyone could contract the disease and be completely unaware. Testing regularly is important because it can remain unnoticed for years.
“If something tragic happened and you got infected today, you are contagious immediately. It will show up on a test two weeks to six months after you get exposed if you go and get a test, but most people don’t get a test until they get sick,” Pickett said. “It takes the average person 10 to 12 years from the time they get infected to the time they get sick.”
Allies plans to continue testing this year and hope to see more students take notice and get tested.
“A step has been taken, I think that’s the most important part,” Ellis said.
Students who are interested in getting involved in Allies or would like to keep up with the club’s activities can request to be added to their Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/FSCAllies.
If students would like to speak personally and confidentially with Pickett about HIV/AIDS awareness or Friends Together, she can be contacted via Facebook or via her website at http://straighttalkwithcathy.com/.